Thursday, November 01, 2012

Nuts about acorns...

(and walnuts, and chestnuts, and ...)

Every autumn in Portland brings a great opportunity to stock up on the easiest staple foods around: nuts! Depending on the type, in an hour of gathering you can collect days or even weeks worth of calories, all free for the taking from parks, roadsides, and yards where owners find them a nuisance. Of course, you'll spend a lot more time actually extracting the nuts, but the cold dreary days of winter suit that task quite well. Roughly in order of ripening, Theressa and I used to forage:

The Nuts

Hazelnuts (aka filberts) - We never had much success with these, as squirrels and scrub jays always started harvesting early, before full ripening in late August or early September. Friends of ours have had success, so perhaps we didn't look often enough, or get the timing right, or find trees with enough nuts to have some left over after our nonhuman neighbors took their share.

English walnuts - Also very popular with squirrels and jays, but usually produced in enough abundance for us to enjoy some of the harvest as well. Easy to gather, easy to shell out, and generally liked by everyone, these formed the bulk of our nut harvests each year.
Walnuts started dropping in mid to late September and lasted into early or mid October.

Chestnuts - Delicious, sweet, reliably produced carb-rich nuts. Spiny burs protect these nuts from the squirrels until they fall, so by checking trees every day or two you can collect a lot from the ground before squirrels run off with them. (Other humans, especially asian folks who've traditionally eaten chestnuts as a staple, actively seek out the nuts, often getting to trees shortly after sunrise to check on the previous night's fallen goods.) Hurling sticks or short chunks of 2x4s into the trees encourages new nuts to drop right in front of you, allowing a much larger harvest. Look for trees at Laurelhurst Park (mostly along 39th, but also some in the interior), Fernhill Park (two massive trees), and within neighborhoods. I found a nice spot, unharvested by anyone else, off the ramp connecting NE 42nd Ave to Columbia Blvd. Be sure to understand the difference between horse chestnuts and edible chestnuts before trying to eat them.
Chestnuts have a similar start time as english walnuts, but last into late October.

Acorns - By far the easiest staple for us to collect in bulk. Their tannins discourage squirrels and other humans who prefer to hoard the easier nuts first, but once you get a routine for leaching the tannins the acorns become very usable, and probably no more time intensive for the caloric yield than most of the other nuts. Acorns make excellent poultry food, though you'll have to crush the shells a bit for the birds to access the meat.
Acorns start falling about the same time as chestnuts, but last into November or even later. The rains of October and November usually ended our harvesting due to mold attacks long before we actually ran out of nuts to harvest.

Black walnuts - After acorns, the easiest nuts for us to collect in bulk. The hand-staining hulls and thick shells slow down squirrels and other humans. I generally harvested them after the hulls started rotting, making it relatively easy to extract the shell; we then air dried them for a while before storage. I cracked them out by holding each nut on a large rock (or driveway, sidewalk, etc) with my left hand and smashing it with a hammer. I cut the shells further open as needed with wire cutters to extract all the meat. Compared to most other nuts we got much lower yields of calories per hour of extraction, but the quicker and more reliable gathering offsets that a bit, I love the unique flavor, and the caloric yield still pays off quite well.
We harvested black walnuts from early October well into November.

Ginkgos - Tasty nuts surrounded by dog-poopy flesh, borne on female trees. (Many people in cities plant males to avoid dealing with the fruit, so don't expect every ginkgo to yield nuts.) Much smaller nuts than the others, so less efficient to harvest and process in quantity, but can still yield a good supply, and they fall after we've finished harvesting the others. We noticed some Asian people foraging these, but not as avidly as with chestnuts, and we didn't see any other animals gathering them. Some people suffer rashes as allergic reactions, so use caution the first few times you experiment. (One friend got an itchy anus presumably from the nuts on the way out, another a rash on her hands from handling the fruit or the shells.) You need to cook the nuts (before or after shelling); don't worry about removing the pellicle skin.
These start falling in November and last perhaps into December.

Foraging References

Samuel Thayer wrote the best two foraging books I've found for temperate climates: The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden. He covers a limited number of plants, but in great detail based on direct personal experience. In Nature's Garden he tells you more or less everything you can know (from a book) about hazelnuts, black walnuts, and acorns; The Forager's Harvest describes butternuts.

Euell Gibbons has shorter sections on acorns, walnuts, butternuts, and hickory nuts in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. "Wildman" Steve Brill discusses hazelnuts, black walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts, hickories, and oaks in Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so wild) Places.


Thanks to Jasmine for inspiring this post's title with her email address!

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