A Fall Field Guide: Foraging for Nuts

A handbook to use when foraging for nuts. The article includes nut and tree identification information for acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and chinquapins, black walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, pecans and pine nuts.

| September/October 1988

A handbook for those foraging for nuts, and, to paraphrase the late Euell Gibbons, love to reap what they have not sown. (See the tree and nut identification illustrations in the image gallery.)

A Fall Field Guide: Foraging for Nuts

FOR CENTURIES WE HUMANS HAVE joined the squirrels and the raccoons, the turkeys and the boars, the deer and the chipmunks in the harvest of fall nuts. Nutting was once serious business, a matter of survival, of storing sustenance for the coming winter. So it was with Native Americans and colonists, and with European peasants—and so it remains today among people still living a hand-to-mouth existence with the earth. Few foods offer nutrition as completely and as compactly as the nut. Botanically, it is a seed, the embryonic life of a tree. But in effect, it is a hermetically sealed energy capsule, packed with protein and fat; a nourishment concentrate.

Most people today go nutting for pleasure. The nuts remain the quarry, but nuts aplenty (though perhaps of less noble bearing) can be had in any grocery store. Nutting, (foraging for nuts), on the other hand, puts you inside the fall forest kaleidoscope, every step acrunch in leaves, the air crisp and laden with the musky scent of autumn. There is no better time to be in the woods, and no better excuse (whether or not you need one) than to be gathering tasty nuts.

Ah, there's the crux of the matter: Not all nuts are tasty. Some are astonishingly bitter. Others, though toothsome, require extreme determination, if not demolition, if one is to crack them apart-and then they may yield little more than a smidgen of edible kernel. Most folks know a nut when they see one, but what kind of nut is it, and is it worth picking up?


No matter how many mothers have told their children otherwise, acorns are not poisonous; they are one of the oldest foods known to man. Evidence of their consumption has been found amid the debris in Paleolithic cave dwellings. They were the staff of life for many Native American groups, who ground the nuts into meal for bread and mush. The Pilgrims found baskets of roasted acorns hidden in underground chambers and, noting the nuts' similarity in taste to that of chestnuts, welcomed oak mast into their diet. A wise move: Acorn kernels provide a complete vegetable protein, up to 7% by weight in some species. More than half their bulk consists of energy-rich carbohydrates.

7/5/2015 7:16:46 AM

Before joining, I wrote a comment about my nice shady 5 year old 17 or 19 leaflet hickory/pecan tree that I planted as a nut in an old rotten stump. I don't know if that message went through, so let me know please. Just plain Fritz

11/5/2014 12:40:47 PM

Shareyn, take it from someone who has spent YEARS harvesting walnuts from her mother's yard (3 huge trees). It just has to wear off much like blackberry juice. But yes, next time wear gloves. Keep a pair or two in the car. It's helped us for any situation that arose.

10/9/2014 9:50:43 AM

Help did not wear gloves when cracking open black walnut pods tried everything to clean hands any suggestions please

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