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gathering wild nuts 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 shell.

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.
    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.
Related Articles:
How to Harvest and Hull Black Walnuts
Gathering Wild Mushrooms
Gathering Wild Edibles
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.