for the first time ever, we collected nuts as a food harvest this autumn! these weren’t collected from a grove of planted nut trees on a homestead, but from two trees in my parents’ suburban yard. which goes to show, you don’t have to live on a farm to come by free wild food!
we collected nuts from two different nut trees that are at least 30 years old and planted in the landscape of my parents’ yard. this trees hem and haw between heavy nut years and years with few nuts. this year happened to be a pretty heavy nut year! one day while i was out picking up nuts so we could mow the lawn, i got to thinking how silly it seemed to throw them away, and decided to try my hand at hulling and harvesting.
one tree is a black walnut (juglans nigra) and the other is a shagbark hickory (carya ovata). both these trees are native to the eastern us and pretty common trees. so even if they aren’t growing in your yard, there’s a good chance they grow in a local park or parking lot or other open space. as always, check local ordinances before collecting in public spaces to make sure it’s ok. if you find trees in a manicured area, you are probably doing the landscaping crew a favor by collecting the nuts!
i collected a five gallon bucket full of each type of nut, which only took me about half an hour.
these nuts are a pain to hull. the hulls stain your hands, so you must wear gloves! the hulls are also soft and stringy, so it’s difficult to get all of the nut hulls off the nut shell. i broke the hulls off by hand best i could and threw the nuts in shell in a bucket, then poured boiling water over to try and get the hull pieces off. this didn’t really work and kinda made a mess.
after i got as much off as i could, i laid all the nuts out on metal screens to dry in the sun for two weeks, tarping whenever it rained.
then we cracked a nut to taste the nut … and sad news, it was AWFUL! i did some research and learned that we collected our nuts way too late. black walnuts have the best flavor when they are collected and hulled when the hulls are GREEN. my hulls were yellow to brown and at this stage, the tannins from the hull seep into the nut meat and cause the poor flavor. so i ended up tossing all the black walnuts i gathered.
the good news is, we used some green hulls to make a super tasty red wine liquor (called nocino) and i used all the hulls from the harvest to make black walnut dye, and i successfully dyed a bunch of fabric from the thrift store! so all was not lost.
the hickory nut harvest was much more successful! hulling hickory nuts is pretty straightforward. the hulls are woody and fall off in four pieces, so hulling them is very easy and you can do it just with your hands. a bonus is a lot of the hulls fall off when the nuts fall out of the tree. i raked all the nuts to one place and picked through to gather the nuts in shell.
once i had a good sized bucket of nuts, i filled it with water and discarded all the nuts that floated. these shells were either empty or had dried out nuts inside. this trick worked perfectly, and i discarded about half the nuts i collected. i ended up with about 3 pounds of nuts in shell. i left them out to dry the same as with the walnuts.
the above process was easy and quick, but cracking the nuts was not. we ended up using a vice to crack the nuts then picking out the meat. it was a family affair. we would crack a big bowl of nuts, then pick the meats while watching football or a movie (it’s mindless). after probably ten hours of work, we ended up with a pound and a half of lovely shelled hickory nuts!
hickory nuts are super tasty. they look like little walnut but taste more like pecans. we are saving our bounty for thanksgiving, planning on making a cake and ice cream with the nuts. i hope my extended family is impressed!
all in all i enjoyed harvesting nuts – it was a satisfying experience. i’m making dye with the hickory nut hulls too, and working with nut hulls has been a great introduction to natural dyeing. perhaps it will become a seasonal tradition.