As I reached the overlook midway through the long hike, I felt my energy level plummet. One of my trail buddies commented that morning breakfast was a distant memory. Soon we were all reaching in our packs for our trusty trail mix — a blend of energy-rich ingredients that for some included raisins and peanuts and for others a more exotic combination of fruits, seeds, nuts, and even chocolate.
How ironic to partake of this snack within one of our state’s forests, which produce similar delicious, protein-rich foods.
From walnuts and hickories to hazelnuts and pecans, there is a great bounty just waiting to be enjoyed. Late summer and early autumn outings are perfect for getting acquainted with the state’s edible nuts. If you have yet to experience their rich flavors, at first taste you will wonder why you waited so long to give them a try.
Missouri leads the world in black walnut production. Northern Missouri, in particular, boasts an abundance of black walnuts, but the trees grow well throughout the state. You may find them in bottomlands, pastures, or in dry, rocky forests. Most landowners are thrilled to have a healthy stand of black walnut trees growing on their property — for the edible nuts, certainly — but especially for the valuable timber. Black walnuts are one of the most recognizable trees in our state’s forests. Open, rounded crowns top tall, straight trunks that can reach heights over 80 feet. Long, compound leaves are composed of 11 to 23 dark-green leaflets that have a very pungent odor when crushed. This same distinctive smell permeates all other parts of the tree as well, especially the green husk — also called a hull — that covers each nut.
When searching for black walnuts, look for the large, green, husk-covered nuts in the trees or on the ground. They’re about the size and shape of a tennis ball. Each fall, walnut fans fill their woven mesh sacks with what many refer to as black gold. As with most harvests, some years produce abundantly, while other years are less bountiful. Many things factor into walnut production, including rainfall and insect damage.
Collecting walnuts can leave a brown telltale stain on your hands. To get to the nut, you first have to remove the darkening husk to reveal the deep-brown-to-black, grooved shell. Many people take their walnuts to local farm service centers to be hulled, but you can do it at home. A gravel driveway is a good place to spread out your walnut harvest to begin the process. Each time you drive in and out, your tires soften and crush the husks. Using a garden rake or hoe, you can separate the crushed husk from the hard shell. This process is usually followed by a drying period of a few days, after which you may store the walnuts in the shell in a cool, dry place.
Extracting the nutmeats is trickier, but worth the effort. This requires time, patience, a sturdy hammer or a nutcracker, and some nut-picking tools. My father once said nothing beats sitting next to a crackling fireplace in November picking out those black walnut “goodies.” It allows time for you to reminisce about your autumn adventures and to look forward to tasty holiday desserts. Perhaps the hardest part is not snacking on them as soon as you pluck them from their shells. Be sure to save plenty for banana nut muffins, zucchini bread, black walnut cake, and homemade fudge.
Growing the Harvest
If you would like to grow some of the state’s native nut trees on your property, contact the George O. White State Forest Nursery in Licking about seedling availability. Order information and forms may also be found online at on.mo.gov/1KwTE1M.
For many, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same without the sweet flavor of pecan pie. A fresh, homemade pie that includes Missouri-grown pecans is a special treat.
The largest member of the hickory clan, pecans can grow to a height of over 100 feet tall. The trees grow best in rich bottomland soils along our state’s streams. In this native habitat, they are found alongside other large river-bottom species such as American sycamore and ash. Like members of the walnut family, pecans have long, compound leaves and husk-covered nuts. Unlike the walnut, the pecan husk splits at maturity to reveal the smooth, light- to medium-brown, oval nut, which can measure 1 to 3 inches in length.
The nut of the pecan has its beginning in April and May when the flowers appear. All summer long, the nuts develop, and by October, they are ready to harvest. The pecan’s naturally splitting husk and thin shell make it relatively easy to gather and process.
Though not as familiar to many people as walnuts or pecans, Missouri’s native hazelnuts provide a key source of protein for wildlife.
Therefore, it is hard to beat the squirrels, chipmunks, bobwhite quail, and deer to these globe-shaped nuts,which are ready to harvest during the lazy summer days of August. The reddish-brown nuts are about the size of an acorn. They grow encased in fringed, prickly leaves, known as bracts. You may find them growing singly or in clusters of two to five. Hazelnuts grow in shrub thickets rather than on trees, so it’s easy to miss the harvest.
Hazelnut shrubs grow up to 10 feet tall and can be found throughout Missouri. For me, it is easier to find the shrubs during early spring, when the twigs bear flowers called catkins. The drooping, brown male catkins can measure up to 4 inches long and stand out more than the shorter female flowers.
Make note of where you see hazelnut thickets blooming in the spring, then return in late July or early August. If the green bracts show brown flecks or brown edges, go ahead and gather them — otherwise wildlife will take them all before you get a chance to check on them again. Store the green nuts in a cardboard box in a warm, dry place. Give them a stir every few days to keep them uniformly dry. When they ripen, the bracts will open and release the nuts. You can eat hazelnuts raw, but they’re better toasted. Spread a single layer of kernels on a rimmed baking sheet and toast at 275 F for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them because they can burn fast. To remove the papery skins, wrap warm hazelnuts in a kitchen towel. Let them cool, and then rub them in the towel to loosen the skins.
Cooking Wild in Missouri
Written by retired Missouri Department of Conservation editor Bernadette Dryden, this 198-page cookbook includes 16 sweet and savory recipes using Missouri’s hickory nuts, black walnuts, and pecans. Many of her other recipes also call for native tree nuts, including the hazelnut. The soft-cover book sells for $15 plus shipping and handling and sales tax (where applicable). To order, call toll-free 877-521-8632 or visit mdcnatureshop.com
Hickory wood gets a lot of attention for its meat-smoking popularity and its durability, which is useful in the manufacture of tool handles and sports equipment. The nut of the hickory tree, however, is often forgotten. Commercially, it is far less available than its close relative the pecan, even though the nuts can be just as flavorful.
Missouri’s forests are a mosaic composition of oaks and hickories. The state boasts eight species of hickories. Some hickories produce bitter-tasting nuts, while others have a mild flavor. Hickories share many common characteristics — dark-green compound leaves, sturdy limbs, and gray-colored bark. Three species — shellbark, shagbark, and mockernut — stand out from the crowd for their production of large, sweet fruits.
Shellbark trees produce the largest nuts among the true hickories. The nuts are edible and can be substituted in any recipe that calls for pecans. Like all hickories, the nuts develop inside a husk, which can be as much as 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Once mature, this husk splits into four parts to reveal the smooth, light-brown, globe-shaped nut.
Locating shellbark hickory trees can take a little bit of time, as their numbers have declined over the years. First look in the trees’ preferred habitat, which is rich, forested bottomland soils along streams. Then keep your eyes peeled for loose bark on rich, gray trunks. The bark tends to curl away from the trunk and makes a great hiding place for wildlife such as bats, lizards, and insects.
Shagbark hickories share many common characteristics with shellbark hickories, including gray, peeling bark, and an association with bottomland forest species. The nut is easy to crack and yields a very flavorful nutmeat that can be used for baked goods, such as quick breads, cakes, brownies, and candies.
Mockernut hickories do not have loose or peeling bark. In spring, just as trees begin to leaf out, the light-colored buds of the mockernut appear as the largest buds in the forest, often measuring 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch long. Mockernut trees grow throughout most of Missouri in dry, acid soil. The long compound leaves have three oversized terminal leaflets. The nuts are covered in a very thick, rusty-brown husk.
Hickories are a favorite food of fox and gray squirrels. They begin their harvests early in autumn, so go to the woods early, or you may find only husk wedges, empty shells, and damaged or hollow nuts littering the ground.
Enjoying the Harvest
If you are lucky enough to beat wildlife to the nut harvest, you will want to savor the flavor all year long. Nuts may be safely stored in the shell after they have thoroughly dried. To prevent loss, your storage area must be kept cool and moisture-free. You must guard against mold and pests such as insects and rodents. Shelled nuts may be stored in airtight containers for a short time in your kitchen pantry or for longer periods in your freezer.
Homemade Energy Mix
It is easy and rewarding to make your very own trail mix. Using native nuts makes it extra tasty. This recipe makes 6 cups of mix. Just combine all ingredients together and enjoy.
- 1½ cups black walnuts
- 1 cup pecans
- 1 cup hazelnuts
- ½ cup hickory nuts
- 1 cup raisins or dried blueberries
- 1 cup dried banana chips
Gathering Nuts on Conservation Areas
Many Missouri conservation areas permit gathering nuts, berries, fruits, edible wild greens, and mushrooms for personal consumption, but some do not. Be sure to check the online Conservation Atlas at mdc.mo.gov/atlas for the regulations and contact info of the conservation area you plan to visit and call the area manager before heading out to foray for wild edibles.