How sweet bitter is...
“...reminds me of the taste of wild hickory nuts.”
Bitternut hickory is also referred to as “swamp hickory” and anything that is associated with a swamp is definitely a red headed step child. Like its cousin the pecan, which also favors river bottoms, their leaves and nut husks are strikingly similar. however, the one pictured is from a tree on a high and dry upland hillside in WV. Native nuts always seem to have surprise about them.
Who remembers that? For kids like me who watched TV in the 70’s this was quite a shocking statement. Eating hickory nuts conjured an image something akin to chewing on a piece of wood. Euell Gibbons wrote a book at just the right time titled “Stalking the wild asparagus” and this elevated him to a status of “Forager General" for the United States and made him an earthy, grandfatherly symbol to the back to the land, crunchy, natural food movement. There seem to be more comfort, and less futility in going outside to find our own wild food then waiting, covering our heads underneath school desks for Russia's "nuclear arsenal" to come raining down on us. The cereal company Post took advantage of this status, and commercialized him into a symbol of trust, purity, and down home goodness to sell their Grape nuts cereal. With me, being more of a Captain Crunch Berry kind of kid, something somehow must have crept into my homogenized milk soaked, sugar saturated cereal fed brain, because here I am 45 years later talking about how sweet bitternut hickories are.
Last week I was raking up bitternuts from a lone bitternut tree in the park just downhill from the Union Elementary school. It was having a bountiful year this year and I had some good sized piles. I was hoping not to disrupt recess, but the kids came pouring out of the school like locusts and stopped dead in their tracks, eyes big as liberty dollars, mouths agape, at this old guy putting nuts into a bag. One kid finally recovered from the shock enough to ask, "What are you doing?" In which I had to confess that I was gathering these nuts for an experiment. I want to make oil to from them to sell and see if we can create jobs for people that live in the country like you all. “They asked if they could help and I replied, "of course." With this they all began to scurry around and cleaned up around that tree so that it would be the envy of any parent looking at the floor of their child's room. I couldn’t believe how much the kids were excited about the idea of gathering nuts, and how helpful and polite they were. They even asked if they could carry the bags of nuts to my truck. There were a couple of “trouble makers”, and they were the most enthusiastic helpers of the bunch, suggesting that they would better thrive in an outdoor experiential learning environment.
In Northern Europe there are schools where the kids spend all of their time outside. These are called Forest Schools. The children from these Scandinavian countries have the highest testing scores in the industrial world. Germany now has over 1500 of these schools and Germans are not known as being “slackers”. I told the kids that if they gathered the rest of the nuts from that tree, or brought nuts from home and gave them to their teacher I would pay them and they could use that money for supplies, a trip, or some special treat. One little girl asked if the money could be used for her school band and I said, "Whatever your class and teacher's decide."
Why shouldn’t the kids be excited about it? Running around in the woods having a scavenger hunt is fun. It is what we are designed to do. It's in our "nature" and that nature is not being served in school desks under fluorescent lights all day. "Nature deficit disorder*" N.D.D. has been consider a major contributor to many of the problems that children are afflicted with. Diabetes, obesity, autism, drug use can be traced to not having healthy outdoor time exploring in the woods building forts and flipping stones in a creek. This is very different from a playground or an organized sport. Spending less time on an electronic device, or supervised activities, and more time roaming in nature on one's own eases the soul, keeps the body in shape and makes us happier. Our grandparents knew that, and spent much of their time outside gathering berries, and nuts, foraging for herbs and hunting and trapping in their free time. This demanded that they be fit, observant, and resourceful. These are primary attributes that will help a person to have a happy healthy life free of pharmaceuticals and the financial yoke the medical industry has on an alarmingly growing proportion of the American population.
Geographically, bitternuts they have an enormous range and favor being north of Kentucky, but cover the east coast from Northern Florida to southern Quebec and west to the edge of the Midwest plains. The nut is most easily identified by its thin ridged husk and very thin shell. For anyone with a forager’s heart that has been excited to come across such a thin hulled and thin shelled nut, it is quite an experience to nibble on some of the meats inside and have your mouth violently reject it due to its intolerable bitterness making an under ripe persimmon seem like a s'more. It would seem that what the shellbark and shag bark hickory use as predator protection in the form of a big husk and hard woody shells, the bitternut has opted for chemical warfare. Since the bitternut tree doesn’t have to produce that intensive defensive infrastructure to protect the nuts, can then spend more energy on nut meat production? There can be varietal diversity in nut bearing among hickories, but in general, wild trees have large mast crops about every 3 years given the proper conditions of mild spring weather and reliable seasonal rain.
Believe it or not, for the Acornucopia project, the bitternut hickory is one of two most desirable nuts we are asking foragers to bring to us with the black oak acorn. We will be purchasing or trading for them this fall. Reason being is that the bitternut's thin shell makes for a high ratio of meat to shell, they are rich in oil, and are easy to crush. A voice maybe asking in your head, “Why, if they are so bitter? What could possibly be done with them?” Like the black oak acorn, the tannins in the meat that give the tree its nefarious name are water soluble. When they are pressed the tannins do not express in the oil. No fancy chemistry needed. That is yet another surprise of our native nuts.
If you are ready to come out from under your desks and blazing artificial light, you can find out more about more foraging opportunities please visit the Go Nuts page on the Acornucopiaproject.com website. Foraging outside is a wonderful activity for children and adults. All you need is a rake, a shovel, some bags and you are in business. Residual benefits include learning more about trees, connect with seasonal harvests, become a nut farmer for an hour, day, or more, get fresh air, exercise, a sense of peace that comes from being in the woods, contribute healthy food to your community, explore places you have never seen, meet neighbors, make friends, make money, support a new economic model that provides financial equality and dignity to all the people who participate. We can all have that in the simple act of gathering nuts. I'd say, "That's good work if you can get it."
* Read more about Nature Deficit Disorder in Richard Louv's sentinel book "Last Child in the woods"