Foraging for Wild Nuts Guide

Nut foraging guide

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Nuts are a lot more versatile than many people give them credit for and what’s great is that, when kept correctly, they won’t go bad for a very long time. So, if you’re looking for a nutritious and plentiful food to forage, then nuts might be the answer.

But before you begin, there are a few things you’ll need to think about. Here’s our guide on foraging for nuts.

Edible Wild Nuts You Can Forage For

As with any type of wild food, you must be certain that what you’re collecting is, in fact, edible and safe for human consumption. The good news is that there are a lot of suitable nuts out there, so let’s take a look at some of the most common.

Acorns (Quercus spp.)

Foraging for accorns

The acorn is the fruit of the majestic oak tree and is a type of nut that has been used by humans for many years both as a food source and for medicinal purposes. In fact, they were so sacred in some Native American communities that there were even oak forest keepers to ensure the safety of these trees and their fruits.

Where Can You Find Acorns?

Acorns are among some of the most abundant types of nuts in the world. You will find different species of oak trees growing in North America, Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia. Typically, in most regions, you would find the white oak, but the red oak is also common in many of the same places.

Depending on where you are in the world, the tree itself and the fruit may take on a slightly different appearance, so it is worth checking out local species before foraging.

How to Identify an Acorn?

Oak trees are among some of the largest and most dominating trees in the forest, especially when they are fully grown. These are deciduous trees meaning that they lose their leaves during the fall.

You can easily tell an oak tree apart from surrounding species owing to the leaves. The white oak has leaves with rounded edges, while the red oak’s leaves are more pointed.

The acorn itself is typically a chestnut brown color when it is ripe, although there are some variations. Before ripening, the acorn is a much brighter green color, but you wouldn’t want to eat them at this point; more on that later!

At the top of the acorn, there is a small crown, and the nut itself can often be found sitting in its shell which doesn’t cover the entire nut but acts more like a little ‘seat’ for it.

When Can You Pick Acorns?

As we have already mentioned, you don’t want to eat unripe acorns, so you will need to wait until they go from a rich green to a deep brown color. This usually happens at the beginning of fall, but you may have to wait a little longer for all of the acorns to be ready for collection. Forage for acorns any time between September and November for the best harvest.

How to Eat Acorns?

Always wait until acorns are ripe before eating them. This is because you have to wait for the tannins to be released otherwise you end up with something that’s got a harsh, bitter taste. But even when they have turned that lovely deep brown color, they’ll still be pretty bitter if you attempt to eat them raw.

For this reason, you should always make sure to cook acorns for the best taste. The best way to prepare them is by leaching, but before you do this, do ensure that you have properly washed and prepped the acorns.

Once you have cleaned them and removed the shell, you will then need to pop them into a pot of boiling water. You’ll soon notice that the water begins to turn a darker color, some people compare this to the look of tea. When this happens, drain the acorns into a colander and then quickly put them back into another pot of boiling water, repeating the process.

You’ll need to keep doing this until the water remains clear so it could take a little time, but the results will be worth your effort.

If you’re feeling particularly culinary, it’s also possible to grind acorns to make acorn flour. This can be used for biscuits and cakes, but do keep in mind that the process can be a little time-consuming, and you’ll need lots of acorns.

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Foraging for Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Unfortunately, it’s extremely unlikely that you will happen upon an American chestnut as these are as good as extinct. In the 50s, these trees suffered a widespread fungal disease which resulted in root rot, so today, while there are a few remaining, they really are rare.

However, there are other types of chestnut, including the Chinese chestnut, and these are still delicious, especially when roasted.

Where Can You Find Sweet Chestnuts?

Sweet chestnuts were brought to the USA back in Roman times and can often be found strewn across the floor of forests and woodlands. These trees can be found in locations all over the northern hemisphere, so you won’t have to look far.

This is a real treat for foragers who want something easy to find. But do be careful when foraging as it can be easy to mistake the sweet chestnut for the horse chestnut which is toxic to humans.

How to Identify Sweet Chestnuts?

Make sure that you correctly identify a sweet chestnut because, as we have discussed, they can be confused with the non-edible horse chestnut. Fortunately, the sweet chestnut tree is quite easy to tell apart thanks to leaves that slightly resemble the shape of a canoe. Moreover, the height of these trees is a giveaway, with fully grown specimens being up to 50 or 75 feet tall.

You will also notice that the leaves have an almost serrated edge which is a key giveaway that you are indeed looking at a sweet chestnut tree. They’re attached to the tree with a very thin stem, and you’ll also notice clusters of burrs growing on the tree.

When Can You Pick Sweet Chestnuts?

When fall comes around, this is the best time of year to go foraging for sweet chestnuts. Much like the acorn, you’ll get the best crop between the months of September and November.

You should wait until the sweet chestnuts have fallen from the tree. There will be plenty lying on the ground, so they’re known as one of the easiest types of nut to forage. It’s also worth keeping in mind that you should only collect nuts that have open burrs as this tells you that they are ready for eating. If the nut remains in its shell and rattles around, this is a sign that it has dried out and is no good.

How to Eat Sweet Chestnuts?

When most of us think about chestnuts, we imagine winter and Christmas, and this isn’t a wrong assumption. That old Christmas carol that says ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’, is a pretty adept explanation of how best to eat these nuts. When you roast them, they’ll become much softer. However, it is perfectly possible to eat them raw when they will have a little more of a crunch.

But if you don’t fancy roasting them, it’s also possible to boil sweet chestnuts, and a lot of people enjoy them in dishes such as soups. That said, they’re perfect for sweeter dishes and desserts, so they’re certainly one of the most versatile nuts on this list.

Beechnuts (Fagus spp.)

Beechnuts foraging

Beechnuts have a very distinct appearance and are a great snack or part of a meal thanks to the fact that they are packed with nutrients. These delicious nuts have been eaten by humans as far back as Roman times, and while they’re not incredibly common in most people’s diets, they’re an ideal food for foraging.

Where Can You Find Beechnuts?

There are several different species of beech tree, according to Wikipedia which states there are up to 13 species. However, these species are mainly part of two main types of trees; the American beech and the European beech.

How to Identify Beechnuts?

Beechnuts themselves are incredibly easy to identify, thanks to their spiky husks. The husks come apart slightly when the nuts are ready to eat.

To identify the tree, you will need to be able to tell the American and European versions apart. The American beech tree has bark that is often compared to elephant skin in both color and texture, while the European beech tree’s bark is a lot darker, and the leaves are significantly smaller.

When Can You Pick Beechnuts?

Beechnuts begin to ripen in the early fall but waiting until October will normally give you the best yield. The nuts can be picked up until around January.

It’s important to keep in mind that the trees produce the beechnuts every year, but every three years, there are what is known as the beech masts, where harvests are very large.

How to Eat Beechnuts?

Beechnuts can be toxic if eaten in large quantities owing to the tannins they contain. While it’s OK to nibble on a couple while you’re out foraging, it’s generally better to roast them to remove the tannins.

Moreover, keep in mind that while American beechnuts are quite sweet, their European counterparts are much more bitter due to the presence of saponin glycoside. Again, roasting the nuts will improve the flavor.

Pine Nuts (Pinus spp.)

Pinenuts foraging

Pine nuts are found inside the pine cones that fall from the pine tree. However, you should be mindful that not all of them are edible. In fact, out of 19 pine nut-producing trees, there are only two types that can be consumed by humans; the pinyon pine and the ponderosa pine. The pinyon pine is the most common with three species; the Colorado pinyon, the Mexican pinyon, and the single-leaf pinyon.

These small edible nuts have long been eaten in India, but people in the west are now realizing how versatile and tasty they are.

Where Can You Find Pine Nuts?

Both species of pine trees that produce edible pine nuts can be found in western countries. In fact, they’re in abundance. In the United States, many pinon pines can be found in the southwest in places like California, Nevada, and New Mexico.

That said, there are pinon pines around the country and as far away as Europe. In Mediterranean areas, you will commonly find the Mediterranean stone pine which produces edible pine nuts.

How to Identify Pine Nuts?

Pine nuts are hidden inside pine cones, and these have a very distinct appearance, so it isn’t difficult to spot them. They will open up when they are dry and will remain closed when wet.

The pine nuts are smaller than other nuts on this list and have an off-white color and what’s great is that it often only takes a little shake of the pine cone to get them out.

When to Pick Pine Nuts?

Pine nuts can be harvested between June and November, so you’ve got plenty of time to gather what you need. However, in most cases, you will need to allow the pine cones to dry out before you can get the pine nuts out, and this typically takes around three weeks. To do this, you will need to place the pine cones in a warm, dry environment.

How to Eat Pine Nuts?

It is possible to eat pine nuts raw, but most people prefer to roast them or toast them. It’s important to toast them while they are still in the shell, as this will bring out the best flavor. But if you want to get a little more creative, pine nuts are perfect for adding to pesto.

Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.)

Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.) foraging

There are two main species of hazelnut tree; the Corylus avellana and the Corylus americana and these are spread across North America and Asia, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to forage for hazelnuts. Often used to make spreads such as Nutella, hazelnuts are a very popular flavor.

Where Can You Find Hazelnuts?

Depending on where you are, you may find either type of hazelnut tree. The Corylus avellana can be found growing across Europe and Asia while the Corylus americana is widespread across parts of the east and central United States and southern Canada.

These trees are usually found in woodlands and hedgerows, but you may see them growing in domestic gardens as well.

How to Identify Hazelnuts?

The hazelnut is a dark brown color and is usually found in a green leafy husk. The trees and shrubs on which they grow are easily identifiable by their round, jagged leaves. However, to get the best nuts, you may need to look deep within the foliage so make sure you take a pair of gloves!

When Can You Pick Hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts are best picked during the latter part of August through to early September. However, it largely depends on the weather, and sometimes, you may be able to continue foraging hazelnuts until mid-October.

How to Eat Hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts are usually eaten roasted, but experts advise only eating nuts that are yet to have fallen from the tree.

If you want to get more creative, you can use hazelnuts in everything from bread to cheesecake, and many people also use them for hazelnut butter.

Common Walnut (Juglans regia)

Common walnuts (Juglans regia) foraging

Foraging and eating walnuts can be dated back to Roman times when people realized just how tasty and versatile these nuts were. Today, many people still enjoy them, and they’re also incredibly nutritious, packed with lots of protein and other good stuff.

Where Can You Find the Common Walnut?

The European walnut, as its name may suggest is native to Europe but also parts of central Asia. You will find the best walnuts in woodlands, especially untouched areas, but also check hedgerows and wastelands.

How to Identify the Common Walnut?

Some walnut trees can grow as tall as 50 meters! Although most will be much smaller than this, but in any case, they’re easy to spot. The leaves are long and rectangular, and the trees often have catkins that can grow up to 10cm in length.

The walnuts themselves have a fleshy green husk, and as the nuts begin to ripen, this husk starts to open up.

When to Pick Common Walnuts?

The best time to forage the common walnut is in the middle of October. That said, some nuts may be ready around September, but the flavor and quality may not be quite as good at this time.

How to Eat Common Walnuts?

What’s great about the common walnut is that it is one of the few nuts that can be eaten raw. Although, you’ll need to make sure that it hasn’t dried out first. That said, you can dry out your walnuts, and they’ll keep for up to 12 months; when you’re ready, you can add them to your favorite dishes.

Some people also like to pickle walnuts which is a unique way of enjoying this common nut.

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) foraging

Black walnuts are a great alternative to the common walnut, and with the trees being native to North America, you won’t be hard pushed to find some locally. It is important to properly prepare black walnuts before eating.

Where to Find Black Walnuts?

The black walnut tree can be found growing across zones 4 to 9 of North America. In the 17th century, this tree was introduced to Europe and can now be found there.

When hunting for black walnuts, you will need to go to an area where the soil is extremely well-drained, as this provides the ideal conditions for these trees. More often than not, the black walnut will grow on a hillside and can tolerate pretty high altitudes up to around 1000 meters.

How to identify Black Walnuts?

Black walnuts are one of the easiest types of nut to identify. Their husks are bright green, and about the size of a tennis ball, so they’re relatively large. They hang proudly from the trees and are very easy to spot.

When to Pick Black Walnuts?

Black walnut trees tend to start producing nuts quite early on in their life. It’s not uncommon for them to start producing at just ten years old. After this, they’ll produce a harvest every fall and this is considered to be the best time to collect them.

How to Eat Black Walnuts?

Black walnuts are incredibly difficult to crack, but it’s worth the effort since what’s inside is delicious. If you’re finding it very difficult to get the husks open, then you should leave them for a few days to allow them to soften, which will make it easier.

These nuts are slightly more bitter than other types of walnut but have a lovely earthy flavor. It is, however, important to get those husks removed as soon as possible otherwise they will leach a very bitter flavor into the nut itself. Once they’re open, you can eat them raw.

Butternut/White Walnut (Juglans cinerea)

Butternut/White Walnut (Juglans cinerea) foraging
Wendy Cutler / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Another type of walnut available to foragers is the white walnut which is sometimes referred to as the butternut. Not only are the nuts edible, but there are some parts of the tree, such as the bark that have medicinal properties.

Where Can You Find Butternuts?

The white walnut tree is native to eastern parts of North America and grows in abundance here. It will usually be found growing through zones 3 to 7 which means that in the southern United States, there is a serious lack of these trees. You will also find them growing in parts of Canada.

How to Identify Butternuts?

The bark of the white walnut tree is a light grey color which makes them easier to spot. These trees can grow up to 40 meters but usually don’t exceed 20 meters. The leaves have a similar appearance to the black walnut tree, but the nuts are entirely different. For example, while black walnuts are round, white walnuts have a more oblong shape. Their husks are green and fuzzy so are easy to identify.

When Can You Pick Butternuts?

The best time to collect white walnuts is during the early fall. You may start seeing them falling from the trees around September, but keep in mind that due to the high oil content, they tend to spoil much more quickly than other nuts.

If you’re brave enough and it is safe to do so, climbing up into the tree and giving it a shake can yield an astonishing harvest.

How to Eat Butternuts?

When you have gathered your harvest, you will first need to hull the nuts and dry them out. Do this in a dry but shady place, and once the nuts are ready, you can use them right away or freeze them for up to 12 months.

Eating white walnuts can be done raw, but many people prefer to toast them and include them in a variety of sweet and savory dishes.

Hickory Nuts (Carya spp.)

Hickory nuts foraging

In the USA, there are three different species of hickory nut; the pecan, the shagbark, and the pignut. Although many people treat pecans as a type of nut in their own right, so for this reason, we will focus on shagbarks and pignuts.

Where Can You Find Hickory Nuts?

Hickory nut trees are native to North America and prefer to grow in full sun, so you’ll need to look for the trees in open spaces. Quite often, they can be seen growing along the roadsides, which makes things much easier.

How to Identify Hickory Nuts?

The shagbark tree, as its name suggests, has a shaggy-looking bark, while the pignut’s bark is a little smoother. That said, both have many other similar qualities, such as jagged leaves with between five and seven teeth.

The pignut hickories tend to be a little smaller than the shagbark at around an inch, while the latter can grow up to double this. The nuts are encased in a lined shell, which will come in handy when you’re hulling them.

When to Pick Hickory Nuts?

If you’re looking to gather hickory nuts, you must make sure that you head out before they start falling from the trees, lest you lose a lot to wildlife. This means starting to forage in the early fall around September.

How to Eat Hickory Nuts?

When you have picked your hickory nuts, you will need to leave them for a few days to make it easier to get the shell off. Even at this point, you’ll still need a nutcracker, so be prepared for a little bit of hard work.

One of the great things about hickory nuts is that they can be eaten raw, directly from their shell. However, it is also possible to use them to make oil, which is great for cooking or even as a salad dressing.

Keep in mind that eating raw hickory nuts might not be for you as they do have a slightly bitter taste that’s not all that dissimilar to the black walnut. However, by toasting the nuts, the flavor will be improved.

The Native Americans used to use hickory nuts to make a thick, creamy porridge.

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