There Are a Bunch of Nuts Around Here!

Shagbark hickory nuts, Photo:

Shagbark hickory nuts, Photo:

No, we didn't mean the staff at the Nature Center. We meant the nuts such as hickories, walnuts, and horse chestnuts, and we truly are loaded with them. We also have six different species of oak trees, all producing nuts, although we call them acorns. But wait a minute. Some of those nuts are botanically not nuts, and some of them are not nuts from a culinary point of view. So the first question is: what makes a nut a nut?

A nut is a dried fruit in which the ovary wall becomes hard as it matures and where the seed remains unattached within the ovary wall. Botanically, some of the true nuts are beech, chestnut, and oak. Walnut and hickory are not nuts; they are drupes, although they certainly are called nuts when we think of eating them. A drupe is any fruit, consisting of an outer skin, an often pulpy and succulent middle layer, and a hard and woody inner shell usually enclosing a single seed.

So, enough of the botany. What you want to do at this time of year is recognize them. As you walk along the forest trails, check the pathways. You'll find acorns, but since that is one of the favorite foods of squirrels, you may only find bits and pieces of them. Check the tops of rocks for those pieces: squirrels love to sit there while they nibble.

You'll also spot loads of the hickory nuts, some still completely enclosed in their (usually) 4-part husks, some partly eaten, and some empty husks because the nuts have been eaten. There is an interesting reason for those differences: the closed ones are generally from a hickory called mockernut. They're too hard to open which is the reason for that name. The partly eaten ones are probably from a hickory called the bitternut, and the name is self-explanatory. The empty ones are most likely from the shagbark hickory. Those nuts are both sweet and delicious. Another nut you will see on some of our trails is the walnut. It looks like a small dark-colored tennis ball.

One more thought. If you know what to look for, a walk in the woods of the Rye Nature Center is endlessly fascinating. Even better, if you don't know what to look for, you will be endlessly surprised. It will make your day.

--Michael Penziner, FRNC Docent