Walking through a hardwood forest in the fall, it is hard to avoid the crunch of nuts beneath your feet. Today many of the nut trees in the forest feed wildlife. The acorns and other native nuts supply squirrels and other wildlife with food to survive the winter. At one time, when this country was in its infancy, humans also depended more on nuts as a food source.
About 75 years ago, walking in these forests you would have seen huge American chestnut trees. They provided large quantities of nuts to anyone who would pick them up. Unfortunately, these trees were almost wiped out by the Chestnut blight. Only a few American chestnut trees remain and most tend to die once they reach maturity. Other nut trees disappeared as they were harvested for their timber value or were destroyed when timber companies cleared a site. Hardwood forests were frequently clear cut and replaced by pines that would be more profitable. Chinquapins were especially vulnerable because they were often an understudy tree, small and easily overlooked in the process of land clearing.
So how do we recover some of these lost trees? Today we have a chance to adopt some of these nut trees into our yards and landscapes. The interest in edible landscaping has been responsible for an increase in “yard fruit.” In the same manner, the planting of nut bearing trees and bushes can be incorporated into your landscape plan. If you plant them in a good location, you will find that they will offer beauty in the spring and fall and food for many years to come.
There are many reasons to plant something. We plant because we want beauty or fragrance, shade, to produce a crop we can sell, or to have something we can consume. Different varieties of nut trees can offer all of these.
Sometimes people are reluctant to plant a tree because they think it will take too long to grow to maturity. It does take a long time to get nuts from some trees, not so much from others. Once you decide what kind of nut you like, you can research the variety that offers what you need. Dwarf and bush varieties will offer nuts faster than the larger trees. The good thing about planting nut trees is that they don’t need a lot of care. You can plant them and forget about them. They require very little care if you plant them in a good location with well-drained soil.
Here are some of the nut trees that have a good chance of success in our area:
You may be lucky and already have a black walnut tree on your property. Native black walnuts grow throughout Virginia. Their nuts mature in late summer or fall. They must be husked and shelled before eating and are used in cooking. Wear gloves to handle the husks as they produce a black stain that will be hard to get off your clothes or hands. If you decide to plant black walnut trees in your yard, you must be careful about the plants under its canopy. It produces a toxin which can kill some plants. Other plants and grasses are tolerant and are not affected. Also, position the tree so the falling of the nuts doesn’t create a mess and you have room for a tree that eventually can be very large. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Service recommends the following black walnut varieties for their nut quality: Sparrow, Emma K., Rupert, Hay, and Kwik Crop.
Like many other nuts, black walnuts are good for you. They are high in omega 3 fatty acids.
The American chestnut was one of the best nut trees, supplying our ancestors with a free food source. After it was destroyed by blight, scientists worked to cross it with the Chinese chestnut which has blight resistance. They are still trying to perfect this and hope to one day return the American chestnut to Virginia forests. The chestnut will even grow in poor soils but it prefers moderately acid, sandy loam soil and a well-drained location. Chinese chestnuts are readily available in nurseries and are blight resistant. When they produce blooms, they also produce a foul odor which discourages many people from planting it. Or you may want to purchase one of the hybrids that are mainly American chestnut and with just the blight resistance of the Chinese chestnut. No one knows for sure what the outcome will be on these trees for the long term. You will be participating in a grand experiment to bring back the American chestnut. If you plant chestnuts, plant at least two to help nut production. It may take 15 years to produce nuts.
This is a very attractive small tree growing up to 12 feet tall and is a subspecies of the chestnut family. Although it is often found growing under larger trees, it will also grow in more open areas. It produces a delicious small sweet nut. You can plant it and expect nuts in about 3-4 years. It is a native tree which can also be an ornamental. In the fall, leaves turn yellow. Plant two to insure nut production.
This is a native tree which you may find in hiking through Virginia forests. Its nuts mature in late summer to fall. These are small nuts that need to be husked and shelled. One of the problems with this nut is that some trees produce a bitter nut and others a sweet one. Its nuts can be roasted, used for cooking, or eaten fresh. If you plant one, it will take about 8-12 years to produce nuts. The more popular pecan is actually a specific type of hickory nut.
If you want to grow pecans, you need to be very careful in choosing the variety. The large southern pecans do not
do as well here as the northern pecans. They have trouble with our spring frost and need more time to produce a crop. Although the nut size is smaller, the northern pecan is a high quality nutmeat with more oil content and better flavor than the southern type. Because they flower later, they avoid frost damage to the nut crop. The nuts also do not take as long to mature, are more disease resistant, and resist insects better.
Pecans prefer well drained, deep soils. Northern varieties that are recommended by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service are: Colby, Major, Norton, Peruque, Chetopa, Pawnee, Kanza, and Starking Giant. This tree can become rather large so allow room for it to grow and take up vertical and horizontal space. It will provide you with an attractive tree with interesting foliage right away, but nut production will take 7-12 years for the first crop. The good news is that once it starts producing nuts, it will produce them for 40 years or more.
Also called filberts. These are small trees that, unless you prune them, develop a bush-like appearance. They
have attractive foliage that grows 6-8 feet tall which makes it very easy to harvest the nuts. Although they are self-fertile, planting two is recommended to insure a good crop. They are very hardy, disease resistant natives to the Eastern United States. Small sweet nuts develop in the spring and ripen in August. Hazelnuts are rich in vitamin E (an antioxidant).
They can be eaten fresh or used in cooking.
Nuts are a good source of many nutrients. According to Harvard School of Public Health, research has shown that
people who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who rarely eat them. The FDA recommends one ounce of nuts daily to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Growing your own nuts can be fun and rewarding. Once you plant the tree, not a lot is required to keep it going. Although it takes a few years to get a first crop, it will continue to produce for years with little or no effort on your part. Even if you move and leave your nut tree behind, you have left a valuable legacy for others.