Gathering Wild Nuts
by Peggy Deland
Most people think of gathering wild edibles as a hobby. After all, you may spend
hours walking the forest and come home with only a few wild mushrooms or a quart
of berries. While foraging is an enjoyable and relaxing way to spend an
afternoon, it's one of the least efficient ways to provide food for your family.
But collecting wild nuts -- some of which are remarkably plentiful -- is a major
exception to this rule. Often the only limit to how many nuts you bring home is
how many you can carry -- or fit in your truck!
Efficiency aside, there are plenty of other reasons to gather wild nuts. Several
varieties that you'll rarely see in a supermarket are easily found in most
areas. Black walnuts are particularly prized for their unique flavor, but
chinquapins, beechnuts and butternuts are just as delectable (and far easier to
crack open). The hickory nut -- best known as a nuisance to lawnmowers -- makes
a delightful addition to homemade desserts or a tasty snack right out of the
Of course, no discussion of edible wild nuts would be complete without
mentioning the humble acorn. Though often overlooked as a food source, acorns
are among the most versatile foods you can forage. Finely ground acorns can be
used as a base for gluten-free bread, tortillas, pancakes and muffins, as well
as a thickening agent for stews and gravies. More coarsely ground acorns can be
added to homemade ice cream or cookies, and whole acorns can be glazed and
roasted for a quick snack.
When and Where
Wild nuts are most abundant in the eastern and central portions of the United
States, but almost every region has one variety or another. In the eastern
states, look for beechnuts, black walnuts and hickory nuts. The Ozarks and
surrounding areas are home to chinquapins, black walnuts, hickory nuts and
hazelnuts. Pine nuts can be found throughout the southwest and in southern
California. Acorns, of course, can be found anywhere oak trees grow.
If your own parcel is devoid of wild nut trees, there are still plenty of
options. Many people have nut-producing shade trees in their yard and will
happily let you gather as many nuts as you can haul away. State parks and
national forests usually allow visitors to gather nuts, but be sure to ask about
limits or restrictions before you fill your bags. If all else fails, you can
find a few pounds of acorns and hickory nuts in almost any municipal park.
The height of the nut season usually occurs in October, but can vary from
September through October depending on local climate and recent weather. Most
nuts begin to fall around the time leaves change color in the autumn, but it's
best to gather early and often -- before insect larvae invade the fallen nuts.
This is less of a concern with hard-shelled nuts like black walnuts, and
especially important if you're gathering acorns or chinquapins.
Gathering and Storing Nuts
All you really need to begin collecting nuts is a patch of woods and a sturdy
canvas bag or two. Still, there are a few things to keep in mind, especially if
you're just getting started.
Most nuts can be shelled and stored frozen until the next season. Some can be
stored at room temperature for a few weeks in a tightly-sealed jar, but
high-carbohydrate nuts like acorns and chinquapins tend to mold under these
conditions. Another option is to spread the nuts out to dry in the sun for a few
days. Once dried, the nuts can be stored for a few months as long as they remain
in the shell.
Know your nuts (and the trees they come from). Some nuts, like chinquapins, have mildly toxic lookalikes. A field
guide with photographs is always a worthwhile investment.
- Bring a nutcracker and a pocketknife to open and taste a "test nut", especially if you're gathering acorns or
hickory nuts. Bitter nuts can be used but will need to be boiled or rinsed
repeatedly to remove tannic acid. Alternately, you can just move on to another
area where the nuts are ready to eat as-is.
- If you're after pine nuts, bring a tarp to place under the tree, and shake it vigorously to free the tiny nuts from
the pinecones. You may want to wear a hat when you do this!
- Don't worry about the squirrels. Nuts are abundant and unless you plan to fill several trucks, you won't prevent
local wildlife from stocking up for the winter.