Zone 5 nut trees

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Edible chestnuts are not related to horse chestnuts.

3. Hazelnut (Corylus sp.)


The hazelnut, or filbert, performs best in moderate climates, but hazels need 800 to 1,200 chill hours to flower and break dormancy. Too far south, they may flower too early or out of sequence with pollination. Although hazels bear both male and female flowers, they are not self-pollinating and need at least two different cultivars because some cultivars won’t pollinate each other. Growers should plant four to six different cultivars to get consistent crops.

In America, eastern filbert blight fungus has limited commercial hazelnut orchards to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but the development of blight-resistant and cold-hardy hybrids may enable the hazelnut to become a sustainable crop for much of the United States and southern Canada. The plant can be a 3-foot shrub or a 30-foot tree, depending on rootstock and pruning. Grafted or layered hazels will start producing within two to three years and can stay productive for 60 years.

Disease-resistant and cold-hardy hazelnuts have the potential to become a valuable part of the sustainable-agriculture movement, according to Tom Molnar, PhD, hazelnut expert at Rutgers University.

“We’re right on the edge,” he says. The trees are very low input, “something that you could take care of on weekends.”

Hazelnuts require only a few (if any) sprays for bud mites or blights, compared to grapes, peaches or apples, and need much less pruning. Most hazels grow naturally as large multistemmed shrubs. Even with a bush, you’ll still be able to harvest a crop, says Molnar. But if suckers around the base are pruned two or three times per year to leave a single tree trunk, all the energy goes into the mature wood, which equals more flowering and sooner bearing. Single-trunked trees are also easier to maintain for weed control, mowing the orchard and harvesting.

“They’ll do really well on soils that are moderately acidic, and they respond very well to nitrogen fertilizer,” Molnar says. Weed control will keep trees healthy, but his test trees haven’t needed pest control.

Hazelnuts are drought-tolerant and will grow where other crops won’t, such as on slopes and in marginal soils.

Molnar admits that planting more than 1 acre or so may not be a wise investment, as yield consistency is one of the things being tested in Rutgers University trials.

“But there’s a lot of potential,” he says. “For the hobby or backyard gardener—for your own consumption or growing for a local farm market—I think it’s a great plant!”

4. Hickory (Carya sp.)

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The shagbark hickory (C. ovata) and shellbark (C. laciniosa) hickory are eastern North America natives, ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They are slow-growing trees that may take decades to bear nuts but can live for centuries. Grafted hickory varieties may yield more reliable but not faster nut production. Hickory trees need a very long taproot before they can begin producing nuts.

Hickories are very cold-hardy, adapt well to disturbed areas and tolerate poor soils. They produce small, sweet nuts within extremely sturdy shells. The trees grow to about 60 feet tall. You have to plant two varieties whose flowering and pollen-shedding suit each other’s pollination timing.

5. Macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia)

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The macadamia, introduced to Hawaii from Australia in the late 19th century, can also grow and produce well in small regions of southwestern California and southern Florida.

6. Pecan (Carya illinoensis)

John and Anni Winings/Flickr

The pecan is another member of the hickory family. An extremely slow-growing species, it takes years to establish the massive root system it needs before it can begin to grow wood and may take five to 10 years to bear nuts. The trees can live 130 years or more and grow 90 feet tall and 120 feet wide—really! Pecan trees can be cultivated and grow well outside their natural range, which is from Texas through Kansas, Missouri and Illinois, but need a lot of summer day- and night-time heat. They are self-pollinating, though nuts from cross-pollinated trees may be of higher quality.

For Reid, “Pecans are king!” Husk removal and disposal are not a problem with pecans, which he believes are unmatched in taste.

For farms on the northern edge of the pecan zone in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Illinois, he recommends Kanza, a cultivar that he helped release in the mid-1980s. It’s scab-resistant, ripens early in a large area of the country, and produces an excellent medium-sized nut that fills the kernel no matter what the rainfall pattern.

“Once they get up to size, you don’t do annual pruning,” he says. Maintenance pruning is to “keep them from hitting you in the head when you’re mowing underneath.”

“Planting a pecan tree is an act of faith,” he says. Even with grafted trees, pecans are among the slowest crops to establish. Until they grow a massive root system, the top of the tree won’t grow, Reid explains: “It’s only by about year 13 that you’ll get ‘Oh my goodness! I’ll have to start doing something with all these nuts!’

“I’m shaking trees for nut production that are nearly 4 feet in diameter,” he says. As trees get larger, they sometimes have to be thinned to give the remaining trees room to grow; “If they shade each other, nut production moves to the very top of the tree.” The trees must be fertilized annually and sprayed for insects and for disease, if they’re susceptible.

Unlike walnuts and hickories, the husks, or shucks, split and dry on their own once the first freeze hits them. “Commercially, we let them dry on the trees,” says Reid. “Once we put the shaker on the tree, the nuts just come out—that’s the beauty of pecans!”

The hican is a naturally occurring hickory-pecan hybrid that tastes like a combination of the two and has a more-easily cracked shell than hickories. Hican trees can grow to 60 feet and may take six to 10 years to produce a crop.

7. Pine Nut (Pinus edulis)

Alan Sheffield/Flickr

Evergreen piñons or pinions, native to western states, produce kernels in their pinecones. Depending on the species and growing conditions, pine nut trees may be large or small, fast- or slow-growing, heat-tolerant or cold-hardy, and produce only a few or up to 200 kernels per cone.

8. Pistachio (Pistacia sp.)


The slow-growing pistachio thrives in regions with short, cold winters followed by hot, dry summers. Drought-tolerant, the tree grows well in arid sandy-soiled regions of the American Southwest with plenty of sun, where there are no frosts to kill its spring blooms.

9. Walnut (Juglans sp.)

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Walnuts include the eastern North America native black walnut (J. nigra), the butternut (J. cinerea), the heartnut (J. sieboldiana), and what is regionally referred to as the Persian, English or Carpathian walnut (J. regia). Walnuts do well with full sun and deep, well-drained loamy soil and require 400 to 1,500 hours of cold weather, depending on the cultivar. They must be cross-pollinated. They can take three to five years to produce a crop and can live for centuries. The trees grow 50 to 100 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety. Because walnut trees’ roots excrete a substance that inhibits the growth of many other plants, keep them well away from vegetable and flower gardens. Unlike other nut trees, walnuts should be pruned in the fall. At harvest, wear gloves—the husks are tenacious and leave indelible stains.

The newer walnut-blight-resistant cultivars produce nuts that are five times bigger than the native North American variety. According to Anagnostakis, “You can usually put about 30 trees on an acre, and at about 100 pounds per tree, that’s a lot!”

List of Nut Trees

walnut image by Petr Gnuskin from

When people think of nuts, the first nut that often comes to mind is the peanut. The peanut is actually a subterranean legume, more closely related to the pea than the nut. The peanut does not grow on a tree, nor technically does it grow on a bush; rather, it grows under the bush in the ground. Examples of true nuts include black walnut, macadamia and pecan.

Black Walnut Tree

There are about 20 species of deciduous trees referred to as walnut trees. The black walnut, which is a native of Virginia, is the tallest of the walnut trees, reaching heights of 40 feet. The black walnut tree, which sometimes lives for up to 200 years, produces valuable lumber as well as edible and nutritious nuts. In the wild, the black walnut is a source of food for wildlife, such as woodpeckers, squirrels and deer. However, the black walnut has a dark side, in that it should not be planted near potatoes, blueberries, azaleas, red pines, apple trees, tomatoes or mountain laurel, due to the toxic nature of the black walnut’s root system.

Macadamia Nut Tree

If you have ever flown to Hawaii, chances are the airline gave you a little packet of macadamia nuts as a snack. Chocolate covered macadamia nuts are a popular Hawaiian souvenir. Although the tree originated in Australia, the commercial production of macadamia nuts takes place primarily in Hawaii. The tree does not produce nuts until its fifth year, and takes another seven to ten years for a tree to reach its full production potential. Instead of picking the nuts from the tree, nuts fall to the ground before harvesting. In Hawaii, harvesting occurs from July to March. Macadamia nuts are round and buttery tasting, yet they are toxic to household pets.

Pecan Tree

The star of the pecan pie, this nut adds flavor to cookies, coffee cakes and other baked goods, as well as being a delicious snack food and crunchy topping for candied sweet potatoes or yams. Like many other tree nuts, the pecan requires effort to pry it from its shell. The state tree of Texas, the pecan grows well along rivers and creek bottoms. A mature pecan tree is capable of growing to impressive heights, reaching up to 180 feet, with a diameter of about 6 feet. Pecans, which are harvested after falling to the ground, are sometimes shaken from the tree by mechanical shakers.

A Fall Field Guide: Foraging for Nuts

Amazingly, the annual nut crop from oak trees in North America surpasses the combined yearly yield of all other nut trees, both wild and cultivated. (So if you’re wondering whether gathering up a bushel or two of acorns will deprive some creature of sustenance, worry not.) There are more than 60 species of oak trees in North America, and every one of them produces edible acorns.

Some, however, are more edible than others. Oaks are broadly divided into two groups: red (or black) oaks, and white. Generally, nuts from trees in the red-oak group have a bitter taste, thanks to their high content of tannin, an astringent substance. White oaks, however, contain less tannin and produce acorns that are considerably sweeter.

To distinguish between the two groups, look at the leaves of the tree in question. If the leaf lobes (the projections around the outer edge) are distinctly pointed, the tree is most likely a bitter-acorn, red-oak variety: pin, black, red, scarlet and willow oaks are members of the family. White-oak leaves, on the other hand, have rounded lobes. Chestnut, bur, live, white, gambel (also known as Rocky Mountain white) and post oaks are examples of sweet-acorn types. Another distinguishing feature is the inner surface of an acorn’s cap: If it’s smooth, the nut probably is from a white oak; if it’s fuzzy, chances are the nut was produced by a red.

Regardless of the type of acorn you find, taste a few before you gather quantities. Acorns vary in bitterness not only from species to species, but from tree to tree. Sample some nuts from several different trees, then forage from the best among them. Pick only fresh nuts, and discard any specimens that appear moldy or that have worm or insect holes (this is good practice, of course, when gathering any variety of wild nuts).

Once you’ve removed their caps and shelled them, exceptionally sweet acorns can be eaten as they are, either raw or roasted (bake them in a slow, 250 degree Fahrenheit to 300 degree Fahrenheit, oven for about an hour). But even “sweet” varieties can be too bitter for some tastes, and in some places only red-oak acorns are easily available. Fortunately, tannin is soluble in water and can be extracted, leaving behind palatable nuts. Boil the kernels whole for 15 minutes, pour the water off (it will be brown with tannin), add fresh water, boil for another 15 minutes, pour the water off, and add fresh and so on, until the water is only barely tinted. White-oak acorns may require only one or two changes of water, while red-oak nuts may need many. (Incidentally, you may want to save that first batch of tannin-rich water; it is a wonderfully soothing topical wash for bee stings, insect bites, sunburn and rashes.)

Once the tannin has been removed, roast the nuts and use them as you will. They’re good finely chopped and added to bread or muffin dough. Most acorn fans, though, like to grind the nuts into meal—just put them through a blender or grain mill, or pulverize the kernels with a mortar and pestle. Acorn meal, light brown and pleasant tasting, can be substituted for up to half the flour in any recipe.


There is no mistaking the handsome American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Its strikingly smooth, dusky-gray bark has served as a scratch pad for generations of lovers and others with something, anything, to say. The earliest Sanskrit characters were inscribed on strips of beech bark. And it was a beech tree in Washington County, Tennessee, on which Daniel Boone carved the famous missive, “D Boone cilled a bar on tree in year 1760.” (That tree lived until 1916; it was estimated to be 365 years old.)


In autumn, the beech’s toothed, spear-shaped leaves turn a rich copper color or a near-luminous pale yellow and begin to fall, revealing reddish twigs and small, prickly burs. As they mature, the burs split open, exposing two (sometimes three) small, triangular nuts that ripen—usually by first frost—and drop to the ground. Competition for beechnuts is fierce among four-legged creatures, and the kernels can be hard to see once they’re scattered among leaves, so your best bet is to try to gather them from lower branches just before they’re ready to fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few before the squirrels and raccoons do.

Beechnuts have a thin shell that you can peel off with a fingernail. The flesh is sweet and nutritious: nearly 20% protein! Fresh nuts spoil quickly, though, so dry them in full sun for a day or two (you or the family dog will have to stand guard over them), or roast them in a slow oven.

Though still abundant, American beeches once covered vast stretches of the Midwest from Kentucky to central Michigan. Unfortunately, settlers recognized the beech as a sign of good soil, and countless trees fell to the ax and plow. Eventually, their demise also contributed to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which relied on beech mast for much of its diet.

Though the American beech is strictly an eastern tree, its similar-looking Old World cousin, the European beech (F. sylvatica) also produces edible nuts and has become naturalized both in the Northeast and in western coastal states.

Chestnuts and Chinquapins

Your chances of coming across a nut-bearing American chestnut (Castanea dentata) are almost nil, but no article on edible wild nuts is complete without mention of this once-great tree. Less than 100 years ago, stands of majestic chestnuts, some specimens measuring in excess of 120 feet tall and six feet around, covered a range of more than 200 million acres east of the Mississippi, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Gathering bushels of sweet, fresh chestnuts—which were reportedly far superior in taste to the Italian and Chinese chestnuts we eat now—was a traditional autumn activity. Today, except for a few isolated specimens, all the great trees are gone, the victims of chestnut blight, a fungus carried to this country at the turn of the century on planting stock imported from the Orient.

As the disease spread from New York westward, infected trees were cut down in a futile attempt to halt the blight. The stumps remain, demonstrating the chestnut’s superior rot-resistance, and many continue to send up sprouts, some of which survive a dozen or more years. On occasion, one of these seedlings produces a small nut crop for one or two seasons before succumbing to the blight. Sadly, then, most living chestnut trees are identifiable by their sapling size and by the old, weathered stumps from which they grow. Their leaves resemble a beech’s, but are longer and more deeply toothed.

The chinquapins are close cousins of the American chestnut, and though they are also susceptible to blight, they are a bit more resistant and bear much earlier, at only two or three years old. The Ozark chinquapin (C. ozarkensis) is a small tree with long, deeply toothed leaves; it grows in a limited range encompassing western Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and southern Missouri. The Allegheny chinquapin (C. pumila), really more a tall, thicket like shrub than a tree, sports similarly shaped but less deeply toothed leaves than its cousins. Its range extends from southern Pennsylvania through most of the Southeast to Texas. Both kinds of chinquapins yield sweet, small chestnut-like nuts (they look like flattened acorns), with each kernel encased in a hard shell within a prickly, round bur. Both the bur and the shell are difficult to remove, but they yield—in miniature—the taste of a bygone era. Chinquapins can be eaten raw, roasted or boiled.

Black Walnuts

Prized even more for its rich, dark wood than for its tasty nuts, America’s black walnut (Fuglans nigra) is one of the great unknown victims of the two world wars. Just before and during both conflicts, black walnuts were felled en masse to meet the demand for gunstocks. Still, the tree survives throughout its original range: nearly all the eastern half of the U.S. except the far north. In the West, there are four other native walnut species with extremely limited ranges. Of them, only the northern California walnut (F. hindsii) produces nuts approaching the size and quality of its eastern cousin’s.

The black walnut is easy to identify, particularly in the fall when, beginning early in the season, its leaves turn yellow and drop off, revealing clusters of one-and-one-half-to two-inch-diameter green globes—the nuts, enclosed in smooth, fleshy husks. In a few weeks the green fruit falls, too, and slowly turns black as the husk decomposes.

There are three formidable challenges to be met in harvesting black walnuts. First, you must get to the nuts before the squirrels; this is a matter of picking them up as soon after they fall as possible (sometimes a minute or two is none too early). Second, you must remove the nut from the husk before the flesh decomposes and saturates the inner shell and kernel with bitter brown juice. (That juice, incidentally, is an indelible dye that simply does not wash off clothing or skin.) And third, you’ll have to extract the nutmeat from the shell.

All manner of methods have been devised for dehusking walnuts. Euell Gibbons suggested wearing heavy boots and simply toeing the husks off against the ground. Too often, though, much of the husk remains anyway. Others dump the nuts in their driveways and let a couple of days of traffic squash the husks off. This makes for a messy driveway, however, and the nuts tend to shoot out in all directions from under rubber tires. It’s best to face facts, don old clothes, slip on a pair of rubber gloves and cut and scrape the husks away with a knife. Put the freshly hulled nuts on an old window screen, give them a good hard hosing to wash away bits of husk, and let them dry in the thin October sun.

Walnuts, like most other nuts, keep best in the shell. This is as good an excuse as any to put off the difficult job of cracking them open and removing the kernels. Commercial English or Persian walnuts open easily and yield whole or half kernels. Not so the black walnut. You have to smash your way in, and then pick out the pieces of edible nut from the fragments of hard shell. You can buy special nutcrackers, or tackle the job the old-fashioned way: Put a flat rock in a cardboard box, place a nut on the rock, and smack it with a hammer. Once you’ve tried black walnut pieces in homemade ice cream, bread or muffins, you’ll know the reward is worth the effort.


A close relative of the black walnut and otherwise known as the white walnut, the butternut (Fuglans cinerea) ranges farther north, extending into New England and parts of Canada, but not as far south. The butternut ranks among the highest in food energy of edible nuts, with a whopping 27.9% protein, 61.2% fat and about 3,000 calories to the pound. Wild nut aficionados rank cinerea kernels near the top in taste, too.

Though its leaves resemble those of the black walnut and its crown is similarly rounded and open, the butternut wears fewer leaflets on longer stems, so its foliage overall appears sparse. Its bark is distinctly lighter than the black walnut’s dark gray or brown bark, and is generally smoother.

Butternut trees bear early-at just two or three years of age. The fruit is elliptical, like a long, narrow egg, and has a thin, green outer husk covered with fine, bristly hairs that give off a near-permanent brown dye. The inner surface of the husk produces an equally powerful orange dye. (Time to get out the old clothes and rubber gloves again.) The nut inside is oval, with a deeply ridged and pitted shell that’s almost but not quite as difficult as J. nigra to crack.

The thin, fragrant, oily kernel inside each shell can go rancid quickly, so it’s important to shell and use butternuts soon after you’ve husked and dried them. No problem; butternuts are sweet and delicious straight from the shell, raw or roasted, or baked in cake or pastry.

Hickory Nuts

Hickories—in all, some 20 species and subspecies—are widespread throughout the eastern and central United States. The hickory is the consummate “pioneer tree,” not only because of its importance to early settlers as a food source but also because of the hard, durable wood it provided (and still provides) for tools and tool handles.

When you’re a nut gatherer, hickories are both a joy and a frustration. Though several kinds yield delicious, sweet nutmeats, others produce fruit that is bitter or almost all shell. It’s not always easy to tell one kind from the other.

Fortunately, the two most desirable nut hickories display a distinctive trait belied by their names: The shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) has rough, loose bark that separates in narrow strips; the shagbark hickory (C. ovata) has an even more distinctly fringed trunk, with long, loose strips of bark that often shed and accumulate at the foot of the tree. Both types bear a nut encased in a thick, green husk that, when ripe, separates to the base in four parts. The shagbark hickory usually has five leaflets per leaf and produces relatively thin-shelled nuts; the shellbark generally sports seven leaflets per leaf and yields thick-shelled (but nonetheless meaty and tasty) nuts. Another common thick-husked variety, the mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa), yields sweet but small (some would say minuscule) nutmeats within a thick shell; the mockernut’s seven or nine leaflets per leaf give off a characteristically pungent odor when crushed.

The pignut hickory (C. glabra), like the shagbark, has five leaflets per leaf, but each nut is encased in a thin husk that seldom separates all the way to the base. Depending on the individual tree, the nuts may taste sweet or bitter. One of the most widely distributed hickories, and the least desirable for nuts, is the bitternut (C. cordiformis). Luckily, it’s easy to identify. The bitternut hickory has the smallest leaves in the family—seven to nine leaflets on a relatively short stem—and the buds at the ends of its twigs are bright yellow. The nut husks are thin and flecked with yellow.

Like walnuts, hickories keep well in the shell once husked and dried. They’re easier to crack than walnuts or butternuts, but the job still calls for a hammer or some other tool of brute force.


Actually a hickory, the pecan (Carya illinoensis) is our most important native nut tree and has earned a special niche in our culture and cuisine. The pecan is the ideal nut: easy to harvest, thin-shelled, meaty and delicious. Little wonder that many Indian tribes prized the pecan above all others. Native Americans are believed to have extended the range of the pecan by planting the nut as they traveled the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Spaniards exploring the New World, and, later, settlers venturing west of the Appalachians, encountered the huge spreading trees, some more than 120 feet tall and four feet in diameter, along the entire Mississippi River Valley and through much of eastern Texas and Oklahoma.

The trees were so numerous that it was common practice among our forebears to harvest pecans each year by selecting the largest, heaviest-bearing trees and cutting them down. This waste is particularly puzzling because the pecan, which bears its oval, green-husked fruit in clusters of three to 10, readily drops its nuts. Usually by mid-autumn, the husks split into four crescent-shaped pieces and the ripe, pale brown nuts fall to the ground.

Dozens of new pecan varieties have been developed since the turn of the century, and the nut is grown commercially in orchards from Georgia to California. Still, fully half the market crop is produced from native species. Wild pecans may be a bit smaller than their commercial counterparts, but their shells crack easily and yield whole, sweet, rich-tasting kernels. There are no bitter or inedible pecan types. Gather all you can find.

Pine Nuts

What the West lacks in deciduous nut-bearing trees it more than makes up for with nut-bearing pines. Among the different species native to the West that produce delicious edible nuts are ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Coulter pine (P. coulteri), sugar pine (P. lambertiana) and Digger pine (P. sabiniana). Some of these produce enormous quantities of edible kernels; the sugar pine, for example, produces huge cones up to 18 inches long and four inches across, packed with seeds.

The largest and tastiest pine nuts, though, are produced by the scrubby little pinon pine, a familiar tree throughout the arid Southwest. Pinon nuts, a trendy gourmet item of late, have been a staple among Indians of the region for millenia. Evidence of their consumption has been found in fire pits at archaeological sites in Nevada dated 6,000 years old. At 3,000 calories to the pound, pinons are hardly diet food. Some tribes are said to have forbidden their consumption by pregnant women, for fear that the nuts would fatten the babies too much, making delivery difficult.

There are several species of pinon (also commonly spelled pinyon): In extreme southern California, the Parry pinon (P. quadrifolia); in the deep Southwest, the Mexican pinon (P. cembroides); in southern California and Nevada, the single-leaf pinon (P. monophylla); and through much of the Southwest, the widespread common pinon (P. edulis). The last is the state tree of New Mexico and the major source of pinon nuts harvested for market in this country.

Gathering pinon nuts can be sticky business, particularly if you do so in late summer, when the green cones are still closed and heavy with resin. The cones must be dried in hot sun for several days or charred in a fire to drive off the resin and open the cones sufficiently to free the nuts. An easier approach is to wait till late September or October, when the cones begin to open and take on a brownish color but before they’re releasing the nuts. Moisture causes the cones to swell and hold the kernels tightly, so choose a hot, sunny day following several days of dry weather. Spread a tarp on the ground beneath the tree, shake the tree hard a few times, and pick out the nuts that fall to the cloth. Going from tree to tree, you can gather several pounds of nuts in just an hour or so using this technique—if it’s a good year for the nuts. Pinons produce a large crop only every three or four years.

Two other methods, unfortunately, are commonly used to harvest pinons. One is to cut the entire tree down (sound familiar?). The other is to rob the nests of pack rats and squirrels, where considerable quantities of pinons may be stored. Wildlife officials in areas where this is common practice ask that the pinon plunderers replace the nuts with pinto beans, so the animals won’t be without food for the winter.

Pinons can be consumed one at a time, raw or roasted, like sunflower seeds; just crack the shell between your teeth and eat the inner meat. To process larger quantities, roast the nuts in a low (300 degrees Fahrenheit) oven until the shells turn brittle. Then spread the nuts on a counter top or a table and use a rolling pin to crack the shells and free the kernels. Pinons are great in granola and trail mix, added to baked goods or sprinkled in soups and on salads.

If You Go Out in the Woods Today…

Next time you go for a walk in the autumn woods, take a sack with you, slow your pace to a careful scrutiny of the forest floor and leafy canopy, and gather up some of nature’s best-tasting and most nutritious foods. You’ll soon learn why we humans, even before we were humans, have always been nuts about nuts.

How to identify nuts and seeds from British trees

Trees come in many different varieties, shapes and sizes, and many of Britain’s common tree species will be easily recognisable. Purifying our air by absorbing carbon dioxide and other harmful gases, trees are vital for the health of the planet. Trees also provide a habitat and food for wildlife, creating an ecosystem where birds, insects and other creatures can live.


Learn more about British tree species and how to identify nuts and seeds with our expert guide.



English elm seeds, surrounded by a notched papery wing, are produced in large clusters. Elm suckers, regenerating from roots of elms killed by Dutch elm disease, are prolific seed producers, but these are rarely fertile. Wych elm seeds are larger and germinate freely if sown as soon as they are ripe.

Elm seeds – note the papery wing/Credit: Alamy


Sweet Chestnut

Roast chestnuts are an autumn treat, but a good summer and autumn are needed to produce a crop of large seeds, especially in the north. The husk that encloses the seeds, which are flat on one side, is pricklier than a hedgehog and best handled with gloves.

Ripe chestnuts, Castanea sativa, lying in their already open prickly hulls on the forest floor in the sun/Credit: Getty Images 3


English oak’s acorns have long stalks, while durmast oak’s have none. If they avoid being eaten by mammals and birds, they germinate immediately, producing a root but no shoot until spring. Lucky acorns are carried away by jays, cached and forgotten, germinating beyond the shade of the parent tree canopy.

English oak acorns.Credit: Getty Images 4


These seeds are carried in pairs, with broad-tipped wings that sweep downwards. When they separate, they spin away in the wind like a helicopter, sometimes over hundreds of metres, and germinate readily, making sycamore a rapid coloniser of open habitats. The seedlings even thrive in deep shade.

Sycamore seeds/Credit: Getty Images 5

Silver Birch

Its large numbers of tiny seeds are arranged in brittle catkins, which shatter when flocks of siskins and redpolls feed on them in early autumn. Seedlings grow best in association with fly agaric fungus – look out for red-and-white-spotted toadstools around mature trees.

Silver birch cone/catkin/Credit: Getty Images 6


Borne in clusters, hazelnuts have edible kernels inside hard-shells that are prized by hedgerow foragers (although small mammals often reach them first). Wood mice nibble a circular hole in the nut, squirrels split it neatly in half vertically, bank voles gnaw off the pointed end.

Borne in clusters, hazelnuts have edible kernels inside hard-shells that are prized by hedgerow foragers (although small mammals often reach them first). Wood mice nibble a circular hole in the nut, squirrels split it neatly in half vertically, bank voles gnaw off the pointed end/Credit: Getty Images 7

Horse Chestnut

Introduced from the Balkans in 1616, the horse chestnut’s large seeds entered folk tradition when the game of ‘conkers’ became popular in the 19th century. The prickly husks usually contain two lustrous, beautifully patterned seeds that soon dull when they dry. They germinate readily if sown when fresh.

The most beautiful of our tree seeds – horse chestnuts or conkers/Credit: Getty Images 8


The soft green outer husk produces a dye that stains fingers dark brown when handled and smells of apricots when crushed. After extraction of the kernel, the hard half-shells make excellent small boats, ideal for a superior game of ‘Pooh sticks’ in a stream.

The familiar, hard wrinkled walnut is contained within a green husk/Credit: Getty Images. 9

Ash key

These large bunches of seeds resemble enormous bunches of keys. A few fall in autumn and germinate immediately but most remain on the tree all winter until torn off by blustery weather in March – these remain dormant in the soil for another year before they germinate.

Ash keys – winged seeds of the ash tree/Credit: Getty Images 10


Alder’s small winged seeds, which ripen inside black globular cones, are important food for small finches in autumn. Alder is a riverside tree, so vast quantities of buoyant seed are carried by floodwater and washed ashore on muddy banks that provide the moist conditions needed for germination.

Advertisement Alder cones – a favourite of redpolls and siskins/Credit: Getty Images


Seeds are shiny brown and triangular in cross section, with one or two in each prickly husk. Beech trees tend to produce an abundance of seeds in infrequent ‘mast years’, at which point large flocks of bramblings often congregate to feed on them. The seeds were once valued as ‘pannage’ to feed pigs.

The prickly outer husks of beech seeds/Credit: Getty Images


Nuts are actually fruits. They are defined as dry, single-seeded fruits that have high oil content. They are usually enclosed in a leathery or solid outer layer. In botany terms, nuts are strictly a particular kind of dry fruit that has a single seed, a hard shell, and a protective husk. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts fit the true definition of a nut. Peanuts and almonds do not meet the botanical definition of a true nut. Peanuts are actually legumes and a fleshy coat like a plum surrounds almonds. Whether they are true “nuts” or not, people throughout the world enjoy these fruits.

Native North American Nuts

Acorns are the fruits produced by oak trees (Quercus spp.). These edible nuts were a food source for indigenous peoples of North America. Acorns played an especially important role in California where several species of oaks overlap.

Acorns were a great food source for Native Americans because they could be stored for many years. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

White Oak (Quercus alba). Photo by Larry Stritch.

These hard-shelled fruits were an important food source because if properly treated in the sun, they could be stored for several years and used when needed. Acorns were stored in caches or on tall poles to protect them from being eaten by squirrels. When prepared for use in foods the ground acorn flower was rinsed in a stream to remove bitter tasting tannins.

  • Native American tribes used fire to promote the production of acorns within oak groves.
  • Ground fires were used to kill the larvae of acorn moths and acorn weevils that can prove disasterous to the acorn crop.
  • Burning occurred during the dormancy period in the soil and the fires released nutrients bound in dead leaves and other plant debris into the soil.
  • Most North American oaks tolerate light fires, especially when consistent burning has eliminated woody fuel accumulation around their trunks.

Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) have a strong taste and a very hard shell.

Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) are native to North America. The nuts are primarily used in ice cream and candy.

  • Walnut trees are notorious for inhibiting growth of other plants around them. They produce chemicals in their leaves that are leached out by rain and soak into ground around the trunk.
  • Farmers planted these trees around farm animals to keep the flies away because they erroneously believed that the trees contained insecticides.

Pecan (Carya illinoinensis). Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service,

Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are a commercially important species of nut native to the American Southeast. Pecans are now grown extensively in the southeastern United States and are a prominent part of the regional cuisine.

Historically native peoples and early American settlers used pecans because they were easily accessed along major waterways and were far easier to shell than other North American nut species.

Pine Nuts

Pine nuts (Pinus spp.) are not considered true nuts in the botanical sense but are in fact the edible seeds produced by pine trees. Roughly, 20 species of pine produce seeds large enough to be worth harvesting.

Seeds of the piñon pines were highly prized by Native Americans living in the desert southwest, and were especially important in the diet because they provided an important plant staple that was high in both fats and carbohydrates—a characteristic rare for most other edible seeds, roots, berries, and fruits. Piñon, or pine, nuts are also one of the easiest plant foods to harvest and store, and they were often abundant. Pine “nuts” can also be pressed into oil, which is reported to aid in appetite suppression.

Contact your local National Forest Office to find out if pine nuts are produced in the National Forest near you. A permit may be required for collection.

Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) cone. It is tough to get the pine nuts before the Pinyon Jays take them all. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Did You Know?

  • Before 1900, American Chestnuts, Castanea dentata, were common in the northeastern United States.
  • In 1890, the chestnut blight, which is caused by a fungus, arrived in the U.S. from Asia. It probably spread from imported nursery plants.
  • Between 1904 and 1950, the disease killed or infected virtually all of the U.S. fruit-bearing American chestnuts.

Persian Walnut

Probably originating somewhere around Kyrgyzstan, this nut tree was common from the Balkans to southwest China in ancient times. It was spread farther into Europe in ancient Greek and Roman times. Important commercial growing areas are California, China, France, Southern Europe and Chile. The tree is highly valued both for its nuts and for very useful hard wood.

Kernels of this nut are much used in baked goods in the West, particularly during the winter holidays. They are also eaten fresh, mostly in nut mixes, and are pressed for a flavorful cooking oil. They are very important in the cuisines of Anatolia, Caucasus and Persia, where they have many uses. The photo specimens were 1.6 inches long, 1.4 inches diameter and weighed about 1/2 ounce with a nutmeat yield of 1/4 ounce (50%). This will vary depending on freshness. In the shell these nuts will last several months but slowly lose flavor. When purchasing, check for rancidity.

Walnuts may have important medicinal value. They are being studied for reducing arterial placque, as a treatment for insulin-dependent diabetes and for treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Green Walnut Preserve

These are whole immature walnut fruits, including the outer flesh and skin, preserved in a medium sweet syrup. The shell inside has not yet hardened, so the entire fruit is edible. It has a somewhat granular texture, is very slightly astringent, and has a hint of walnut flavor. I find them quite pleasant, though a bit sweet. Of the photo specimens, the largest was 1-1/4 inches diameter and weighted 7/8 ounce. Product of Armenia – ingred: walnut, sugar, water, cloves, ginger, citric acid.

Black Walnut

Native to North America, this large tree produces very hard wood, and hard nuts as well. Flavor is excellent, intense and distinctive, but these nuts are so difficult and messy to deal with they are not widely appreciated. Where I lived in my childhood, in the back woods of New Jersey, we had a large black walnut on the property. I’m very familiar with the black stains from the husks, and shells so hard they are used as an industrial abrasive. The meats are not easy to extract from the shells either. Photo © i0059 .

The nuts are, however, shelled commercially and are popular for flavoring ice cream and baked goods. The wood is used for furniture, gunstocks, flooring and other applications. A single tree is worth well over US $2000 as lumber so poaching is a constant problem.

Native to eastern North America from Ontario to Alabama and west to Minnesota and Arkansas, this tree is now considered endangered in many areas due to a fungal disease. The oily nuts are used mainly in baking and candies. The wood is used for furniture and woodcarving, and the nut hulls were formerly used to dye cloth a color between light yellow and dark brown. Photo © i0060 .

Shagbark Hickory

There are about 20 species of Hickory, most in North America but some in China and Indochina. The nuts of most hickory trees are too bitter for human consumption but many animals depend on them.

The nuts of the Shagbark, have excellent flavor and are much liked by those to whom they are available. These nuts are not produced commercially because the trees produce too seldom. The bark is also used to flavor a sugar syrup to make it more like maple syrup. Photo by Pollinator distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.

Chinese Hickory

This Hickoy Nut is a major commercial product in some counties or Zhejiang Provence on the eastern coast of central China. The photo specimens were typically 3/4 inch diameter. They were roasted and flavored with Salt, Sugar Fennel and Cinnamon. In this form they were tasty, but rather difficult to eat as the meats do not come willingly out of their complexly partitioned shells. You need a tack hammer, some sort of anvil, and a sharp metal pick, and most segments will come out broken in pieces. The photo specimens were purchased from a large Asian market in Los Angeles (San Gabriel) for 2018 US $6.69 for a 6.3 ounce bag.


Native to North America from Illinois south through Texas and into Mexico, these nuts are most grown in Georgia, followed by Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. They did not become a commercial crop until the 1880s and few are yet grown outside the United States. Pecans are often eaten fresh but are also used in cooking, mostly for pies and sweet deserts. The shells are very thin, so the attractively shaped meats are fairly easy to remove without breaking, are often used decoratively.

These will keep for several months in the shell, kept in a cool dry place, but flavor will slowly decline. The largest photo specimen was 2 inches long, 0.88 inch diameter and weighed 0.3 ounce with a nutmeat yield of 0.16 ounce.


These nut trees are native from the Caucasus throughout temperate Asia. The nuts grow in a string form called a “catkin”, each nut having two wings. The nuts are about the size of a chickpea and are not of culinary importance. This tree is used mainly as a fast growing decorative and sometimes for timber. There is also a closely related Wheel Wingnut (Cyclocarya paliurus) with a single disk shaped wing. Photo by Liné1 distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

These trees are not to be confused with extreme “socially conservative” members of the Republican Party and Tea Parties, also called “wingnuts”. I guess one that’s a corporate CEO would be a “wheel wingnut”.

Zone 5 Nut Trees – Hardy Nut Trees That Grow In Zone 5

Nut trees add both beauty and bounty to the landscape. Most of them live a long time, so you can think of them as a legacy to future generations. There are many factors to consider when choosing zone 5 nut trees, and this article covers the trees best suited to the area.

Choosing Nut Trees for Zone 5

Many nuts would be perfect for the cold winters and warm growing seasons in zone 5 if it weren’t for the possibility of an early warm spell followed by another freeze. During a warm spell, the buds on a tree begin to swell, and refreezing damages or kills the nut buds.

Nuts such as almonds and pecans may not die, but they won’t fill out completely. It’s best to avoid trees that may prove a disappointment and grow those that have a proven record of success. So what nut trees grow in Zone 5?

Here are some of the best nut trees for zone 5 regions:

Walnuts – Walnuts are perfect for zone 5. Black walnuts grow into massive shade trees up to 100 feet tall, but they have a couple of drawbacks. First, they excrete a chemical through their roots and fallen leaves that make it impossible for most other plants to thrive. Many plants die, while others simply fail to thrive.

There are a few plants that can tolerate black walnuts, and if you’re willing to limit the area to those plants, this may be the tree for you. The second drawback is that it may be 10 years or more before you see your first crop of nuts. English walnuts grow to only half the size of a black walnut but they aren’t quite as toxic and you may see nuts in as little as four years.

Hickory – Hickory nuts grow on trees similar to walnut trees. They do quite well in zone 5, but the taste isn’t as good as that of other nuts, and it’s difficult to shell. The hican is a cross between a hickory and pecan. It has a better flavor and is easier to shell than a hickory.

Hazelnut – Hazelnuts grow on shrubs rather than trees. This 10-foot shrub is an asset to the landscape. The leaves have a brilliant orange-red color in fall, and one variety, the contorted hazelnut, has crooked branches that add interest in winter after the leaves have fallen.

Chestnut – Although the American chestnut has been decimated by blight, the Chinese chestnut continues to thrive. The 50-foot tree grows faster than many of the other nut trees that grow in zone 5, and you’ll harvest nuts sooner.

Native North American Nut Trees

Lovers of wild foods look forward to October and November, when the black walnut’s big green globes drop to the ground. The rind is tenacious and not easy to strip from the freshly gathered nut, but the delicious harvest is worth the effort.

Beech Tree

The beech is a large tree—60 to 80 feet-high—with smooth gray bark and oval leaves. It’s a familiar part of the hardwood forest and also a popular shade and ornamental species. Very handsome it is, too, especially in the fall when the foliage turns gold or dark copper. Beeches are found from southern Canada to east Texas and south to Florida, but bear more nuts in the northern part of their range.

The hard, strong wood of the beech is made into tool handles, shoe lasts, woodenware, veneer, and inexpensive furniture. The inner bark has been dried, ground and used for flour in lean times. Mattresses used to be stuffed with the leaves, which are springy and last for several seasons.

The tree bears small, four-part, bristly burrs that ripen around October and open to reveal two triangular nuts. The kernels are tiny, but sweet and nourishing. Roasted and ground, beech nuts are said to make a pleasing coffee substitute.

Butternut Tree

The butternut or white walnut looks much like a smaller black walnut (40 to 80 feet) with lighter colored bark. It thrives farther north than its larger relation, however, and grows higher in the mountains.

Butternut wood is soft and weak. It’s easy to work but not especially valuable. The husks and inner bark contain a very effective dyestuff, and Confederate soldiers were sometimes called “butternuts” because their homespun uniforms were colored brown with the help of this tree.

Pale-green, half-grown butternuts can be scalded, rubbed smooth and soaked in strong brine (change the liquid every day) for a week. Then drain the nuts, dry them and pierce ’em with a large needle. Pack the nuts with dill and pickling spice or a sprinkling of nutmeg, ginger and cloves and fill the containers with boiling cider vinegar. Seal and wait a month… for what some old timers call “the best pickle ever”.

Hickory Tree

Hickories are relations of the walnuts. They’re large, well-shaped trees, 60-80 feet high, and thrive best in open woods or at the edges of forests where they have plenty of light. Most of the several species (other than the pecan) are found all over the eastern half of the United States from lower N ew England to the South.


Some folks say that harness racing could never have been developed without the tough, elastic hickory wood that goes into the sulkies. Hickory is also celebrated as the best raw material for skis, axe handles, chair backs, barrel hoops and other wooden items that have to do hard work. Every outdoor cook knows its value as a fuel … and who hasn’t heard of hickory-smoked hams?

The shellbark hickory (its bark comes loose in long strips) is the most popular for its nuts. The fruit from any hickory, however is wholesome to eat if the flavor is good.

Unlike other hickories, the pecan originally had a very limited range: from southern Indiana, Iowa, and Kansas south to Alabama and Texas. The commercial importance of pecan nuts, however, has led to the planting of orchards in many parts of the South. This impressive tree—80 to 100 feet high—has been used as an ornamental as far north as Massachusetts, but its real home is in warm, rich bottomland.

Pecan wood is rather brittle and less useful than that of the other hickories. When it comes to delicious eating, though, many people feel that the fruit of the pecan is the aristocrat of the, group. The long, pointed nuts—as you already know if you’re lucky enough to live near a wild tree—are enclosed in thin husks divided into quarters by lengthwise ridges. The shells of the wild pecan are usually thicker than those of cultivated varieties, but that’s not going to stop anyone who’s ever tasted the kernels

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