Monday, September 5, 2011

Foraging in Late Summer - Early Fall

There is good foraging at this time of the year but what you are looking for is going to be more localized.  Unlike Spring Greens that are growing everywhere, what you find now is mostly tree-borne fruits and nuts.  They will not be as wide-spread as greens and berries.  What are we going to look at here? Nut trees. We'll look at apples, crab apples, and pears later.

Nut Trees:
Every part of the country has its own particular nut trees.  Right now I am living in The Netherlands and what is available to me here is English Walnuts and Hazelnuts. 

The English Walnut
The English Walnut tree is actually originally from Persia (Iran today) but grows all over the world thanks to domestic orchards.  All it took was a squirrel or some other animal to carry off a nut and bury it in the ground for the tree to get out in the wild.  These trees can grow to a very large size and they emit a natural herbicide that limits growth of other plants underneath them. 

The nuts are fairly round and protected by an outer husk and an inner hard shell.  The shell is not nearly as hard as the more common Black Walnut.  The nuts are ripe when the outer husks start to split and the inner nuts fall to the ground.  squirrels love walnuts of all types so it will be a race between you and them.  Somehow they seem to know which nuts are good and which are bad so late in the season any nuts left on the ground in an area with squirrels are probably no good but crack a few and see.  In my grandfather's biography he talks about collecting the nuts in the fall, shelling them, and laying out the meats to dry on newspaper in the attic.  He would stir them around each day so they would dry better and collect up the grubs or maggots (walnut weevils and husk fly maggots) that worked their way out of the nuts.  He used these for fishing.  I have collected and cracked wild nuts for years and have not really seen that many insects in them but I suppose it depends on where you live. If you dump your husked walnuts in a large container of water, the good nuts will sink.  Toss the ones that float.

Walnuts are highly nutritious but they also are high in (good) fats and calories.  Properly dried, air drying is fine if you don't live in a humid area, they will last for months.  I stored mine in old coffee cans with a few holes punched in the lid so moisture could escape.  I kept the cans in a cool, dry, dark space like the basement or refrigerator. Otherwise it is recommended that you store them in the freezer because the high oil content means they can go rancid (never happened to me though).

The following is an extract from a 1994 article by the Iowa State University:
    The nuts should be hulled immediately after they have been harvested. If the hulls are allowed to remain on for any length of time, the juice in the hull will discolor the nut meats and make them strong tasting. The stain also discolors skin, clothing, concrete, and anything else that it touches. There are various ways and devices to hull walnuts -- a cement mixer, corn sheller, automobile wheel, and squirrel cage are possibilities. Hulls can also be removed by stomping the nuts under foot or pounding with a hammer. After hulling, thoroughly wash the nuts to remove hull debris and juices. Small quantities can be washed in a large bucket or tub. At this time, the good nuts can be sorted from the bad ones. Unfilled nuts float while filled nuts sink. (Rubber gloves should be worn when hulling and cleaning to prevent staining of the hands.)
    After washing and sorting, allow the nuts to dry for two or three weeks. An excellent way to dry nuts is on a wire screen. Spread the nuts in shallow layers (no more than three nuts deep) and dry them in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area. A shed or garage is usually a good place to dry walnuts.
    The walnut has one of the toughest and thickest shells to crack. While nuts can be cracked with a variety of tools, the hammer and nutcracker are most commonly used. The hammer method involves placing the nut, pointed end up, on a hard surface and striking the point with the hammer until it weakens and splits into sections along its axis. Several nut cracking tools are also available. When cracking nuts, shattering of the kernels is often a problem. Shattering can be reduced by soaking the nuts in water for 1 or 2 hours before cracking. The soaking process allows the kernels to absorb enough moisture to become somewhat flexible, resulting in larger kernel pieces. The kernels are extracted from the nutshell with a pick and a pair of pliers.
    The oils in walnut kernels will turn rancid if nuts are stored improperly. After the kernels have been removed, place them in a plastic bag and store in the freezer. The nut meats will keep almost indefinitely when stored in the freezer. Kernels can be stored for short periods in the refrigerator.

Take serious heed to the warning about the juice staining everything.  I used to boil my traps and hunting gear in walnut hulls and water to stain them brown and remove human scent.  It is a serious stain; nothing will get it out.

I am still a few weeks out from being able to harvest walnuts so now I am writing down where I see the trees so I can go back to them later.  I check them every week or so to see how the nuts are doing.  This will be a great year for nuts here; the trees are loaded.

Black Walnuts:
Black Walnuts grow in deep, rich, bottomland soils.  They can grow to be massive trees.  There were Black Walnut trees on my family's farm that were four feet in diameter.  The nuts grow in clusters on branches with long, multiple leaflets. 

Black walnuts are tougher to extract the nuts from than the English Walnut.  The husks have a much darker stain.  Fortunately, the husks practically dissolve once they are on the ground for a while.  Wear rubber gloves to pick them up and wash them in a large drum or tube to get all the husk bits off.  Then let them dry for a couple weeks in the shell.  The only way I have ever been able to get the meats out is to smash the shell with a hammer and then pick out the bits of meat with a nut pick. Be very careful to separate all the bits of shell because biting down on even a small piece could easily break a tooth (been there, done that).  My father-in-law had a short piece of railroad track that he used for breaking Hickory nuts.  I had a small piece of I-beam.  Storage of the nut meats is the same as for the English Walnut. 

The Butternut, sometimes called the White Walnut, is closely related to the Walnut and Hickory nut trees. Butternut grows best on stream banks and on well-drained soils. It is seldom found on dry, compact, or infertile soils. It grows better than black walnut, however, on dry, rocky soils, especially those of limestone origin. I knew of three Butternut trees when I was a kid and they all produced very tasty nuts.  Those trees are long gone unfortunately.  Most Butternut trees have been killed off by canker and fungal infections.  Keep it a secret if you find one. Well, actually, you should tell your local forestry service.  They might want to check the genetics of the tree if it has some natural immunity.

The Butternut is more oblong than the other nuts and the shell inside is also distinct. I cannot remember if they were hard to shell or not.  The outer husk usually fell away.  I often broke the shells with a rock when I was in the area that they grew. The meats of a Butternut are sweeter and have a rich buttery flavor.  If you can find one of these trees you are very fortunate.

Hickory trees were planted and tended to on old farmsteads because of the high value of the tree.  The wood was exceptional for tool handles, wheel spokes, farming equipment, skis, baseball bats and other sports' equipment, paddles and oars,etc.  Hickory wood was used for smoking meats and due to its high BTU content was preferred for woodstoves and ovens. The nuts are delicious but smaller than the other tree nuts so a bit of a bother to harvest and shell (but worth the effort).  The outer husks will split open on the tree and the nuts will partially dry before they fall.  Squirrels love these nuts so you must be quick.  The shells are usually quite clean so once the husks fall away there is little mess and staining is not such a big problem.  Harvesting, shelling, and storing are much the same as for other nuts. 

If you are in your twenties or thirties it would be well worth your time to collect and bury excess hickory nuts and try to get more trees growing in your area.  They grow very tall but will start producing nuts in ten years or so; maybe quicker in ideal conditions.  You will often find these trees growing in the woodlines separating two properties on old farms.  You can buy young trees to get a jump on the growing cycle.  The price shown here is very good.

In some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains and others, one quarter of the hardwoods were chestnuts. Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet (15 m), and in total up to 100 feet, averaging up to 5 feet in diameter. For three centuries, most barns and homes east of the Mississippi River were made from Chestnut timbers and boards.  In 1911, the famous food book The Grocer's Encyclopedia noted that a cannery in Holland included in its "vegetables-and-meat" ready-cooked combinations, a "chestnuts and sausages" casserole besides the more classic "beef and onions" and "green peas and veal". This to celebrate the chestnut culture that would bring whole villages out in the woods for three weeks each autumn (and keep them busy all winter), and to deplore the lack of food diversity in the United States's shop shelves.

But soon after that, the American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by chestnut blight. The discovery of the blight fungus on some Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York was made public in 1904. Within 40 years, the near-four billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated; only a few clumps of trees remained in California and the Pacific Northwest. Due to disease, American chestnut wood almost disappeared from the market for decades, although quantities can still be obtained as reclaimed lumber. Today, they only survive as single trees separated from any others (very rare), and as living stumps, or "stools", with only a few growing enough shoots to produce seeds shortly before dying. This is just enough to preserve the genetic material used to engineer an American chestnut tree with the minimal necessary genetic input from any of the disease-immune Asiatic species. Efforts started in the 1930s are still ongoing to repopulate the country with these trees.  If you find a wild Chestnut please notify your forestry service so they can take genetic samples to help restore this once grand tree to our forests.

Hazelnuts or Filberts:
This tree or bush really is not as common in the US as it is in Europe.  Hazels were used as hedgerows and to grow "coppice".  The nut is know as a Hazelnut or Filbert depending on where you live.  As a kid I knew it as a Filbert Nut. It is one of my favorite nuts for eating and is the primary ingredient of Nutella.  The plant normally grows in bush form but if trimmed and cared for will grow in tree form as well.  In the states you might find some of these growing in the wild if a squirrel or bird carries off a nut from bird or wild animal feed. They might also be found growing on abandoned farms.

The leaves and seed pod are very distinct; once you see one you will immediately know what it is. They are commercially grown in Oregon and Washington state so those might be areas where you could more easily find them in the wild as well.  Again, all it takes is a squirrel or other animal to carry off a few nuts and bury them to get some growing.

If you were planning on growing nut trees for your own food production I would recommend the Hazelnut over all others.  It grows quicker and will produce nuts years before the other tree nuts.  Hazels will start to produce nuts in their third or fourth year and be in full production by the sixth year if you plant plants from a nursery.   A good site for the basics of growing and harvesting Hazelnuts is: Hazelnuts

A good set of nut picks is essential if you are going to forage for any wild nuts.

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