It’s that time once again where harvesting and foraging is taking place on a high level as wildlife begin putting on weight in preparation for the coming winter. One of the favorite foods of wildlife, particularly mammals such as deer, bears, and squirrels, as well as a few birds such as wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, and pileated woodpeckers are nuts. Nuts are a staple wildlife food starting in late summer and extending into late fall. Hickory Nut Gorge is full of nut-producing trees. Let’s take a look at a few.
Probably the most well-known nut species found in the area is the acorn. Within the Gorge and neighboring areas there are several species of oak tree. Oaks are typically split into two groups: the red oaks and the white oaks. These classifications have to do with leaf shape, bud arrangements, and the color of the wood inside. Acorns are a favorite wildlife food as they are loaded with fats and oils as well as protein. Some acorns get scarfed up very quickly due to their sweet flavor, while more bitter species tend to be some of the last ones consumed, mostly by squirrels and other rodents who will pack them away in different areas. Acorns are also edible food for humans. Sweet acorns such as those that come from white oaks, can be eaten raw. Acorns coming from red oaks tend to be more bitter due to the high level of tannins. Tannins are chemicals that are produced by many different plants that are very astringent, making things taste bitter. It is likely these chemicals are produced as a defensive chemical to discourage predation. As such, some acorns have high enough tannin levels that they aren’t fit to eat. However, acorns can be put in boiling water which will remove the tannins and render the nuts edible. Indigenous people made acorn bread by boiling the acorns and then grinding the meat of the nuts into flour which could be mixed with water and made into bread.
A less common species found in the Gorge is the American Beech. Beech possesses triangular nuts that have a small kernel inside that is oily and sweet that has a taste like a cashew. It takes a lot of nuts to make a meal, but beech nuts are very nutritious containing beneficial fats and proteins. Beech nuts are a favorite of bears, turkeys and squirrels. Different from other nuts, beech nuts come encased in a tight little outer hull that is covered in little projections, like a chestnut but not quite nearly as thick or as sharp.
Speaking of chestnut, American chestnut used to be one of the most abundant nut-producing species in the Southern Appalachian. Basically wiped out by the Chestnut Blight, chestnut trees remain mostly as stump sprouts that come up from roots of old trees that are still alive. Most never live long enough to produce nuts, but at one time, American chestnut trees produced enough nuts to feed not only wildlife but mountain families as well. Surrounded by a thick, spiny hull, they required work and patience to get into, but once inside, the sweet nuts were considered a delicacy, such that we sing about them at Christmas time. A relative to the American chestnut is a small tree called chinkapin. Chinkapins are basically about a third the size of an American chestnut, the nuts being about the size of a fingernail. They are just as sweet as chestnuts, but humans rarely get the opportunity to feast on them as production rates are usually pretty low and squirrels tend to get to them before anything else does.
Another fairly common tree species in Hickory Nut Gorge, particularly in rich cove forests and old fields is black walnut. Black walnut is a valuable tree species, its wood being favored for lumber, furniture and gun stocks. The species uses something called allelopathy to reduce competition from other species. It essentially poisons the soil using a chemical called juglone. Only species resistant to juglone can live under the canopy of black walnut trees. Black walnut nuts are enclosed in round hulls that are roughly the size of a tennis ball. If only they were as soft as a tennis ball. If one were to fall and hit you on the head, it might knock you unconscious. Inside the outer hull is a hard black inner hull that requires a hammer to get into. The meat inside is slightly bittersweet and is often used in pies and cakes. Walnuts have also been historically used to make brown dyes. Because walnuts are so hard, not many things will eat them other than gnawing rodents such as squirrels, wood rats, and chipmunks.
Hickory trees are the second most prevalent nut producing species besides oaks. There are about six different species of hickory tree in Hickory Nut Gorge. They have varying degrees of sweetness with bitternut hickory being the least palatable. Shagbark hickory and mockernut hickory both have a very sweet tasting nut. Like walnuts, hickories are a choice nut for squirrels and other rodents because other animals usually leave them alone. The shells are incredibly hard and not easily cracked without a fair amount of work. The bad thing is they are a lot of work for little reward. Except for larger nuts, there’s just not a lot of meat to them, but if you can find a lot of them, they’ll do in a pinch. Like so many of the others, hickory nuts are loaded with fats and oils and muscle-building proteins. Some believe that Hickory Nut Gorge is named after the significant number of hickory trees found in the area. There is a story that early settlers named the gorge after the large white augens found in the Henderson Gneiss which were said to resemble hickory nuts. Regardless, hickory nuts are an important wild edible.
When I’m outside hiking in the woods, especially if I’m with my students, I try to point out as many wild edibles as possible. I place a lot of value on finding nuts. A biologist I know refers to them as “groceries on the ground.” That’s a good way of looking at it considering that they provide a major food source after berries, insects, and other wildlife forage start to disappear as cooler weather moves into the area. If you have any of these trees growing nearby, give them a try. You don’t have to be nuts to enjoy nuts.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.