Monday, October 24, 2011

Adirondack Nuts: The Time for Beechnuts

For many Adirondack trees and shrubs, this past growing season was exceptional, as is evident by the quantity of fruits and seeds which our woody plants have produced. While many of these reproductive vessels have already matured and fallen to the ground, a few like the nuts of the beech have only recently finished ripening and are being shaken loose from their twigs by the winds that occur around the opening of deer season.

Beech is one of the most common components in stands of mature hardwoods across northern New York, especially in our wilderness regions. While the buds and bark of this stately looking tree are avoided by nearly all forms of wildlife, the small, 3-sided nuts that it yields in October are among the most nutritious wild edibles produced in our forests.

Along the end sections of the twigs of older and healthy trees are grape-size spiny shucks that house a pair of 3-sided nuts. The tasty and meaty kernels are further protected by a tough, dark brown covering that requires excellent fingernails as well as good finger strength and dexterity to open. The edible nut within is slightly smaller than a shriveled-up pea, yet is worth the effort expended to access it.
Like many nuts, beechnuts are packed with a wealth of nutrients. Foods analysts have determined that just over half of the nut is composed of fat.

This highly caloric matter is an essential dietary component for all creatures from late summer through the winter in order to develop and maintain their own reserves of fat. Approximately one-third of a beechnut is made up of various types of carbohydrates and nearly 7% is in the form of plant protein. While individual beechnuts vary in size, as do all fruits, each nut is said to contain just under one and a half calories. This is slightly less than a single “M&M” although these colorful candy treats are more massive than a beechnut. In a direct comparison, an ounce of beechnuts contains roughly 18% more calories than the same weight of “M&M’s”. Beechnuts are also known to be a great source of potassium and a superior source of manganese.

Collecting beechnuts from the forest floor takes some time, especially if there are chipmunks, squirrels, mice, deer and wild turkeys in the area. These animals, along with numerous other creatures, attempt to eat or gather as many of these nuts as possible until they have all been collected or the forest floor becomes covered with snow deep enough to prevent access to them.

The best time to gather beechnuts is during the early morning following a night of strong wind. Because many animals that feast on beechnuts are diurnal, the forest floor under an older beech tree may be picked clean of these nuts by late afternoon. Dry periods of weather also help in sending the nuts to the ground, as the shucks open more widely when the relatively humidity is low, releasing the contents.

Because many beech trees in the Adirondacks suffer from beech scale disease, their ability to produce nuts has been seriously compromised. This is the primary factor that causes an empty seed casing. Even in healthy trees, the nut formation process is prone to failure should a period of bad weather develop at some point during the growing season. A late frost, an exceptionally dry spell during a critical period in the growth process, or prolonged bouts of cold and overcast weather can adversely impact an entire crop of beechnuts in an area.

However, when conditions are favorable, large, healthy trees are capable of producing an abundance of nuts. During good nut years, it is possible to collect handfuls of nuts within a short span of time. Because conditions can vary from one area to the next, the possibility always exists that trees in one location may produce a good crop while those in another may yield few nuts.

In several areas that I have visited over the past few weeks, I have encountered quite a few beechnuts. It is impossible, however, to state that other woodlands in the Park have experienced the same bounty of beechnuts. If you encounter these nuts scattered over the forest floor, never hesitate to stop for a few minutes and snack on them. (Unless of course you are allergic to nuts.) And, it is always better to let someone else collect these nuts and spend their time extracting them from the shucks, just as it is better to eat those wild blueberries that someone else takes the time and effort to pick during July. (I can speak from experience on this point!)

Photo courtesy

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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