I was walking the trails at York Land Trusts’ Hilton Farm last week. There is a beautiful spot there where the sun glints off the river and floods the woods with light. On that particular day the sun was filtering through the bright yellow leaves of the hickory trees casting that beautiful golden glow of autumn.
We were kicking the hickory nuts as we walked and looking for whole nuts, hoping to beat the squirrels to at least a couple. It was a disappointing harvest, most were just the cast-off husks, empty of the nut meat and the remainder had the telltale circular hole of a nut weevil, which, like the squirrels, had gotten to the nuts before we had. Truck Wheel Nuts
Shagbark hickory nuts have been referred to as the "black truffle" of the nut world, a real delicacy. They taste great, like a mix of walnut and pecan. The only problem, and the reason they aren’t commercially harvested, is how difficult it is to get the meat out of the nut shell. Shagbark hickory nuts drop from the tree as a green orb the size of a golf ball. That orb is a thick husk. It often splits on impact or as it dries out. The nut is inside.
Squirrels obviously love hickory nuts. I’ve been watching squirrels carry hickory nuts as big as their heads, still in their husk, across my lawn all fall. What hickory nuts remain on the ground often feel suspiciously light. There is a reason the squirrels ignored these as they had already been visited by nut weevils. According to Donald Lewis (Department of Entomology, Iowa State University Cooperative Extension), adult nut weevils “attack the developing nuts on the tree during mid summer. The female adult weevil lays her eggs inside the immature nuts. The egg hatches into a creamy white, grub-like larva that feeds inside the nut until fall. The larva grows to 1/4 to 3/8 inch in length as it eats the entire contents of the nut, making it worthless.”
It is easy to find shagbark hickory trees, They are the only tall tree with conspicuously shaggy bark. I love seeing the huge peels hanging off the trunk. I love thinking about the animals that shelter under those peels, a variety of insects and even bats. This time of year they are shedding their leaves - huge compound leaves with five large leaflets.
Try harvesting a couple nuts just to get a taste for how hard it is to get at that meat, but leave most for the huge number of wild animals that love these nuts. Among the mammals who like them are foxes, black bears, mice, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits. Hickory nut loving birds include the turkey, woodpeckers (red-bellied woodpeckers in particular), blue jays and even wood ducks.
It’s best to let them dry for a month or so. Now the hard part begins. They are difficult to crack open. You’ll need a hammer or some heavy-duty nutcrackers, or some rocks. Once open you’ll need to pry out the nut meat. I love to eat these fresh, but many people say roasting for 10 or 15 minutes takes away some of the bitterness. Use them as you would any other nut. I think they taste much better than their store-bought kin. They are the ultimate locavore fare, grown by nature and harvested in our own backyards.
Trailer Lug Bolts Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. Send your photos and observations to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of her Nature News columns online at Seacoastonline.com and pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.