Friday, August 3, 2012

Oh, Nuts!

American hazelnut bush growing alongside our bike trail.
Hickory leaf. Now that I'm thinking straight,
I can see that this is obviously different
from a butternut leaf.
I have disappointing news: I didn't find a butternut tree. As you know if you read my last post, I've been searching for one. On a recent hike a nut tree practically smacked me in the eye with one of its branches, and after letting my imagination run away with me for several minutes, I imagined that the small, four-part husks might grow up to look like butternuts. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the leaves really weren't quite right. They had three large, well-developed leaflets at the end and two smaller ones a little distance closer to the beginning of the leaf. This wasn't nearly enough leaflets for a butternut leaf, which would have 11 to 17 leaflets. The color of these leaves was also a little darker than that of the walnut leaves I'd seen (walnut trees and butternut trees closely resemble one another), and the leaves were a little heftier and glossier. Then there was that vexing nut, which was just not nearly as large as I'd expect it to be by this time. I had to admit that I probably hadn't found a butternut.
Young butternut tree growing in my garden.

A recent foraging walk with Russ Cohen (who also led a walk I attended in the spring; see my May 9 post) confirmed what I already knew to be the case. He showed us a real butternut tree, which looked so much like a walnut tree that at first I thought it was one. Alas, this tree didn't seem to be producing any nuts. The walk took place on a nearby organic farm that is amenable to foraging, so if there had been nuts, I probably could have gathered some this fall. Alas, I will have to keep searching for a productive wild butternut tree -- or wait about 20 years for the ones I planted in my garden this year to reach nut-bearing maturity.

I found more hickories
along our local bike trail.
I ordered my trees from a mail-order catalog, and by now their leaves are sufficiently well developed to serve as yet another confirmation that the leaves on my mystery nut tree were not butternut leaves. So what kind of leaves were they? I described my find to Russ, and right away he guessed hickory. Not a shagbark hickory, which is the most desirable kind of hickory (I can definitely recognize the distinctive shagbark). There are many kinds of hickory trees, though, and all of the nuts have these four-parted husks like the ones I described. I have since looked up hickory trees in my reference books, and the three large terminal leaflets also fit the bill.

American hazelnuts in husk.
I have found a nut that is much more abundant than butternuts, though. Last year a friend told me there were hazelnuts (or filberts) in the powerline corridor near her house. I went to check it out, and I did find the bushes, but the wildlife had already snagged all the nuts. This year I'm determined to get some of them for myself, so I have been checking on the nuts regularly to gauge their ripeness. I break open the light-green husk and check the color of the nut underneath. I'm looking for a golden brown, but so far I've only found a cream color.

There are two kinds of hazelnuts in America: beaked and American. The ones I've found are American hazels, and the bushes are one of the most abundant in eastern North America. In addition to finding many bushes under the powerlines my friend pointed me to, I also noticed a large thicket along our local bike trail.

Elderberry bushes loaded with unripe fruit.
 The power lines yielded another exciting discovery: elderberries. I saw my first elderberry bush (which didn't have berries on it at the time) in the spring on the aforementioned walk with Russ Cohen. This was the first time I'd seen the berries outside of a photograph, and even though they weren't ripe, their red stems and the way they were starting to droop off the bushes helped me to recognize them right away. Elderberries are known for their immune-boosting properties (they have lots of vitamin C), and you can buy supplements to help with lowering cholesterol, improving vision, and curing a cough, among other things. You don't need to purchase the supplements, though, if you can find the berries and make juice yourself. Elderberries apparently don't taste that great right off the bush, but they make good wine, jelly, and pie (mixed with other fruits). The flowers are also edible, aromatic, and delicious, but if you pick the flowers, the plant won't be able to make fruit, so foragers should exercise caution here. Every part of the elder except the ripe fruit and the flowers is toxic, and a different variety that produces red (rather than blue or black) berries is toxic unless cooked. Samuel Thayer reports that most who taste red elderberries find them disgusting, mostly because the flavor doesn't meet expectations based on the bright red color. They reportedly taste something like bland, slightly bitter tomatoes.

Elderberries and leaf.
There is some conservation concern about elderberries because restaurants are getting interested for commercial purposes. Nonetheless, picking berries for personal consumption shouldn't be a concern, and I look forward to trying some in another month or so. For more pictures of elderberries and for pictures of the flowers, plus additional information about identifying the plant, visit Wildman Steve Brill's site.

Riper elderberries, but still not ripe.
The butternut tree at the organic farm where I went on the foraging walk led by Russ Cohen. This picture didn't turn out that great, but you get the idea.

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