Nutty Over Nuts

Fall is an especially good time to find all kinds of nuts on the forest floor, in a picnic area in the park, or maybe even in your neighborhood or back yard. Let’s take a look and learn how to identify some of these wild nuts.

In technical botanical terms, all of these “nuts” are called the “fruit”. The fruit is defined as the seed and the package which holds the seed. So, for example, the acorn is the “fruit” of an oak tree, and inside is the nut which is a type of seed. If you use plant keys you will see those terms, but for general use, it is ok to call them all nuts!

Acorns are some of the most common types of nuts. Do you know what tree they come from? Acorns come from oak trees. Oaks are found far and wide across New York State and the United States so you should be able to find oak trees and acorns in a park near you. Acorns come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the type of oak they are from. They are a favorite food of squirrels, turkeys, deer, and other animals.

Red oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Red oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Red oak acorns are big (over 1 inch long) and roundish like a fat egg. They have very flat caps that cover only a small part of the acorn. The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is the most common oak species in NY and its state parks.

Scarlet oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Scarlet oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) acorns are less than 1 inch long and have shiny caps with tight scales. Scarlet oaks are common in Eastern NY, usually found on sandy or rocky soils. If you look closely at this picture, you can see a small round hole in the acorn: a sign that it was eaten by some type of insect.

Bur oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Bur oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The large size and heavy fringe of this acorn cap tell us that these are from bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), one of our less common oak species in NY. Sometimes you will only the acorns caps, as the nuts have been carried away by squirrels.

Walnuts

What nut looks like a green tennis ball? That would be the black walnut (Juglans nigra), from the tree of the same name. They have a really strong smell and can stain your clothes, so handle with care. Over time they turn brown and dry out. Black walnuts can be eaten but it takes a lot of work to dry and husk them. They also make a beautiful natural dye.

Black walnuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Fresh black walnuts can get almost as big as a tennis ball. As they age and dry out, they get smaller like the one in the center. photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) is a closely related to black walnut and has very similar nuts. They start out bright green like the black walnut, but are shaped more like footballs rather than the tennis balls shape of black walnuts.

Butternuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

By early fall, the butternuts nuts have dried up and lost their fuzzy husk and they look very much like the English walnuts you buy in the store. This butternut was found empty. Both black walnuts and butternuts are edible but it can be tough to find one that hasn’t already been snacked on by a squirrel!

Butternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts in mid-fall, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Hickory

Hickories are another very important tree for wildlife including turkey, deer, chipmunk, squirrel, mice and others. Of the 20 hickory species found in North America, five species are native to New York State. A good key to identifying these is found here.

Hickory shells ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Hickory nuts can have thin or thick-walled husks like the two types shown here, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.
Pignut_Bitternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Pig nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Pignut (Carya glabra), Mockernut (Carya tomentosa) and Bitternut (Carya cordiformis) hickory have thin husks like this. There are two types of nuts: ones that keep their husk on as they mature or ripen (“indehiscent”) and those with husks that split completely and fall off the nut by the end of fall (“dehiscent”). One has to look at the leaves and/or buds to properly identify these species. As its name suggests, Bitternut is one that is not palatable to either wildlife or people.

Shellbark Hickory_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shellback Hickory nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Wow – what nuts are these? These are the thick husks of the Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), a tree that is rare in NY. The husks range from 1.5 inches to nearly 3 inches long, and the nuts inside would be pointed at both ends. That’s one tough nut to crack! These husks were empty, but you can see how the cavity tapers to a point at each end. The more common Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is very similar, but the nuts are rounded at the base and the husks do not exceed 2 inches long. Nuts from both of these trees are sweet and edible.

American Chestnut

American Chestnut_photo by Julie Lundgren
American chestnut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

If you find one of these, consider yourself very lucky! This is the fruit and nut of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata). Although a blight killed off the large trees, some sprouts persisted and some trees do get large enough to produce nuts like this. These spikes are so sharp you can’t even pick them up with your bare hands, which keeps animals from eating the nut inside. Eventually the husks open up to release the nut in hopes that a new tree will grow.

Quiz Time – What Nuts are These?

Piles hickory shells_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shell pile at the base of a tree, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

It’s easy to overlook them, but look around the base of the trees and sometimes you will find piles of nuts – empty or maybe whole. All kinds of nuts are a very important food source for wildlife. The ones shown above (mixed in with the leaves) are mostly the empty shells or husks of hickory nuts that were eaten by animals.

Shell assortment ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Can you find the following nuts: black walnut, a half-eaten butternut, 2 kinds of hickory nuts, and caps from some acorns? Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Learn More

Want to learn more about nuts and tree fruits of all kinds? Below are some good books and websites to get you started.

Fruit Key and Twig Key book_photo by Julie Lundgren
“Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs” by William Harlow, photo by Julie Lundgren.

GoBotany – an online tool for identifying plants in New England but includes most tree species found in NY state too.

Shellbark Hickory NYNHP Conservation Guide

New York Flora Atlas

Photos and post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

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