Updated: Nov 6
The last fleshy fruits of summer are waning and our paths are covered with acorns, walnuts, and hickory nuts. Gone are the strawberries, dewberries, and blackberries. Now the finest fall crabapples are turning color.
A few forest shrubs produce berries that are important food source for birds and mammals, such as dogwoods, viburnums, euonymus, spicebush, and wild grapes.
This autumn there has been the heaviest mast in recent years.
Mast is a term used historically for the crop of acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, chestnuts, chinquapins, etc., combined that formerly was so important for wild game as well as domestic livestock. In Appalachia until the 1940’s it was the garden that was fenced to keep livestock out while cattle, hogs, and poultry foraged freely in the fields and forests.
You didn’t just drive to the feed store to purchase feed.
A system of branding cattle and notching hogs’ ears with various vees and holes, identified just which pig belonged to whom at butchering time when freezing seasonal temperatures set in. My father-in-law, born and raised in Avery Co., North Carolina, in a cabin with no electricity or running water, situated Goose-neck Creek, remembered this well. You can read more about this lifestyle in detail in Foxfire 1 edited by Elliott Wiggins.
The oaks are divided into two major groups, the red oaks and the white oaks. You can tell the red oak’s leaf by the presence of a little bristle tip projecting from the leaf’s margin at the terminus of each major vein. The wood of the red oak is more porous, therefore it is not as durable in contact with soil as relatively non-porous white oak. Typically, red oak heartwood has a pink or reddish tint, hence the name.
All oaks reproduce by acorns. An acorn consists of a cap and the nut. If the cap has little overlapping scales, it is from one of the red oak species (more than eight in our area). In addition if you have a good 10x hand lens, the inside of the cap is minutely hairy. A red oak acorn takes two seasons to mature and immature acorns may sometimes be seen attached to the branches during winter. Perhaps you can determine which tree your acorn fell from with a few leaves still hanging on. Oaks have an incomplete abscission layer of cells in the petiole (the point where the leaf separates from the twig and drops to
earth), consequently many leaves remain on the tree until late winter.
For the white oak group, the lobes of the leaf are not bristle-tipped. The cap of the white oak acorn is knobby and woody on the outside and smooth on the inside. The wood is durable in contact with soil.
White oak leaves also often hang on the tree, however, the acorns mature in one year so no acorns will be seen on the branches in winter. Very often they sprout almost immediately after dropping and send a little root into the soil before cold weather. The acorns of white oaks have less tannin than the red oaks. White Oak acorns were the type especially valued by the Native American people, in particular the large acorns of the Chestnut Oak. Since tannin is water soluble, some of the bitter taste can be removed by boiling with several water changes. I have tried this method with limited success. Acorns
and acorn flour can be used in breads and baked items. Read "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" by Euell Gibbons for details on this process. The very best place to view a Chestnut Oak grove is on the Donovan-Wilson trail near the powerline junction.
In an earlier post Steve recounted the tragic story of the demise of the American Chestnut (recommended reading). To this day sprouts continue to grow from the surviving stumps until they too sadly succumb to the blight. One specimen in my brother’s Tantrough Forest grew to approximately 25 feet in height and 5 inches in diameter and produced a few nuts. That was over twenty years ago and now it has
died. The blight resistant Chinese Chestnut was imported and planted in the 1940’s to replace the doomed American Chestnut. The property (most frequently called the Vibbert land), directly adjacent bordering along the west side of the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, was planted then as a chestnut orchard. I remember that well and a few very large specimens currently continue to survive. The largest of these is directly behind the privately owned house. These introduced trees sometimes self-seed. You can see several at the edge of the Lee Meadow near the teaching area beyond the Lee Pond. The very prickly chestnut bur contains several shiny dark brown edible nuts.
In contrast the much smaller cousin, the Chinquapin, is more shrub-like and the small burs only contain a single kernel.
My mother, Beulah Hostedler Layton (1907-2007), said chinquapins were sweeter and preferred by her and her three sisters. One of the most anticipated rites of autumn was foraging for Chinquapins in the forests at Blair’s Pond. What is now termed the Post Oak Trail was, at that time, the public road to Blair’s Mill and passable to horse-drawn or
motorized vehicles. The Blair’s Pond tract still has a very nice population of Chinquapins. The Lindale Tract loop trail is another good spot to see them.
Hickory nuts have a tough outer hull that splits open to reveal the nut inside. Most of the hickories have a nearly spherical husk, golf ball size or smaller. There are numerous species of hickory on the Nature Preserve lands. The exact identification is beyond the scope of this article; however, you can divide them into three distinct groups based
solely on the size of nut.
First, if the nut you pick up has a husk that is 4mm or more in thickness and aromatic
it is from the Mockernut hickory. I’m not entirely sure of the name’s origin. I was told since the visual first impression is of a bountiful amount of nut meat; you only get mocked or fooled by the actual skimpy amount.
As my two brothers and I played in our grandmother’s yard we cracked and ate literally thousands of hickory nuts, cracking them open on a large sandstone anvil with a smaller cobble hammerstone. There was a very large mockernut that we avoided, instead favoring the two other large Pale-leaved Hickories because of their superior, sweet taste reminiscent of pecans. Notwithstanding I’ve noticed that squirrels seek out and devour Mockernuts readily.
The medium-sized 1 inch in diameter nuts with thinner hulls could be one of several species. A good field guide will help you decide. The volume, Delaware Trees by William S. Taber has been reprinted and useful for our local trees. It has excellent illustrations of each hickories’ specific nut in detail. The possibilities are Bitternut Hickory, Pale-leaf
Hickory, or Pignut Hickory. I have never seen the Shag-bark Hickory growing on the Nature Preserve Lands.
A few yards along the beginning of the Blair’s Pond Nature Trail entrance from Abbott’s Pond Road, are lots of hickory nuts not much larger than marbles. If you search around, you can find them before the squirrels do. I believe they are fruits of the Small- fruited Hickory. I will need to investigate these a little more, but they are interesting regardless.
Recently I was hiking the Donovan-Wilson Trail, that begins near the Abbott’s Pond boat ramp, and noticed some hickory leaves on the trail with 7-11 slender, somewhat twisted leaflets along the central rachis. When I finally located the two or three trees that had dropped those leaves, I found that they are Pecans possibly self re-seeded from trees
on some nearby farm during historical times.
These pecans are not the large thin-shelled cultivars that are sold in markets today but the smaller, delicious and hardy Carya illinoensis. Look for these trees midway on the trail between the fishing lot and the powerlines on the sandy ridge bordering the agricultural lands.
The last nut to be admired is the Black Walnut. Probably familiar to almost everyone, the green tennis ball sized nuts fall with a sharp thud reminding you not to stand or park your car under them in autumn. The hull does not split as hickories do but simply rots away to reveal a large grooved textured nut.
The release of the nut from the hull can be speeded up by stomping or running over them with your car in a dirt driveway, the method favored by my father. The nut inside is extremely hard and suffers no ill effect from such undignified treatment. Like all walnuts they improve with age until the greenness cures away upon drying out. Crack them
carefully using a hammer and standing them point upwards on a very hard surface. The idea is to crack them and not obliterate them. Finesse! You either love the unique taste of Black Walnuts or you hate it. I’m in the former camp, but then, I grew up with them. They are wonderful in fudge, cookies, or black walnut cake. They are full of heart healthy nutrients, too.
Here is a family recipe to try. If you are not a Black-walnut aficionado, substitute your favorite nut instead.
Beth Baker’s Better Banana Bread
½ cup cooking oil
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs- beaten
3 ripe bananas mashed (the riper the better)
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp, milk
1 tsp. vanilla
½ cup chopped (black) walnuts
Beat oil and sugar together. Add eggs and banana pulp and beat well.
Add sifted dry ingredients, milk and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in nuts. Put
into greased 9x5 loaf pan.
Bake at 350 F for one hour. Cool well before cutting.
For each slice you eat, you are obligated to complete one circuit of the
5K trail at Blair’s Pond.