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Food from the Forest: Some Native Fruit and Nut Trees

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Print shows a branch of a chestnut tree with leaves and chestnut burrs.
Chestnut. Castanea vulgaris, var. Americana. Print, L. Prang & Co., publisher, 1885. //

The last Friday in April is celebrated as National Arbor Day.  The history of Arbor Day is profoundly connected with Americans’ relationships to trees over many generations.

When European settlers first landed on the shores of eastern North America they encountered a landscape that is difficult for modern Americans to imagine. Familiar trees such as oaks and maples could be huge. The native cherry must have been a disappointment with its tiny astringent fruit. In the foothills and mountains of Appalachia, one of the most plentiful trees was the American Chestnut, which once grew to an enormous size. Indians of the Eastern coast subsisted on a mix of hunting, gathering wild foods, and farming crops such as maize (corn), squash, and beans. They usually farmed along rivers, moving their settlements up and down the river in order to leave land fallow for a time and return to it later. Their houses were made of saplings covered with grass mats or tree bark (called a wickiup, wetu, and other names in the various languages of these peoples). They also made canoes covered in birch bark. This way of life did not have an extensive impact on the forests.

European agriculture relied on large areas of cleared land for farming and raising livestock, as well as orchards of fruit trees from Europe. Settlers supplemented the food they grew with hunting, but the long-term goal was to raise nearly everything on the land where possible. So they cleared land and used lumber to build houses and other buildings, and to create fortifications around their towns. Europe had begun cutting down its forests to build ships as well as towns. This process would only accelerate in the coming years. America offered an abundance of large trees, seen as a source of revenue for the countries interested in colonizing the New World, so the need for lumber to export further deforested the eastern coast of what became the United States. The transformation of the vast eastern woodlands into agricultural fields and meadows had begun.

Green oblong fruits on a branch of a tree.
Paw-paw fruit on the tree. Photo by Linda Scott Eiler, 1996. Coal River Folklife Collection.

But in some parts of the country, such as Appalachia, there was terrain that was difficult to clear, so an agricultural style developed that mixed farming with hunting and gathering wild foods. Folklorist Mary Hufford interviewed West Virginians in the Coal River valley on their use of the forests and wild plants for an American Folklife Center project in the 1990s. The practices handed down in that region still taught that trees useful to people or to the wild animals they hunted should be preserved. In this recording, Mary and Robert Allan talk with Mary Hufford and John Flynn about “tracking the nut trees.” In this recording Ben Burnside and John Flynn reminisce about having a store of wild nuts in the winter months: “Gathering and using nuts.” Notice that among the nuts mentioned are some not commonly eaten today. The beech nut was more commonly used as food in the early days of European settlement of the United States, but continues to be eaten in some areas today. Hickory nuts, a relative of the pecan, are still valued by some, but getting the nut meats out is difficult and so they are less commonly collected than they once were.

Acorns, mentioned in the first recording by the Allans, were once a staple in the colonies and early U. S., before the widespread cultivation of wheat for flour. Acorns would be boiled whole or ground to a meal and leached in cold water. These processes remove the bitter tannin. White oak acorns were especially valued as they do not have much tannin and so require less processing. Coarse acorn meal is used to make a porridge, or fine ground acorns can be used as flour. Once wheat became more widely available acorns were no longer used as human food in many areas, instead seen as food for hogs and as a mast that attracted deer and other wild animals that were hunted. But in some areas people have preserved their methods of eating acorns and for some others the tradition is being revived.

A forest fruit that can still be found in many places today, but not as well known as it once was, is the paw-paw. Did you ever sing the children’s song “Picking up Paw-paws?” Pictured is the fruit you sang about.  In this interview excerpt, also with Mary and Robert Allan, several people begin talking at once when Mary Hufford asks about it: “Paw-paw: there’s an important tree!” They are too delicate to ship, so they are not found in grocery stores. But there are now cultivated varieties that produce consistently large and tasty fruits. Wild paw-paws have custard-like flavors that vary from one tree to another. They are usually eaten fresh and are also said to make wonderful frozen desserts.

A slender tree in a forest clearing.
A persimmon tree in autumn. Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1996. Coal River Folklife Collection.

The persimmon is another wild fruit tree that is found throughout the Eastern U. S. and in some Midwestern states as well. I remember picking them when I was young, when my Dad taught me to look for fruits that had turned a bit translucent in late autumn. The fruits are astringent until they are ripe enough to fall off the tree. Then it is a race to get to them before raccoons and opossums gobble them all up. In this interview Dave Bailey talks with Mary Hufford about making “Simmon Cakes” with apple butter and persimmon pulp in 1995.

By the 19th century some people began to question the idea of destroying woodlands. Wild areas were wanted to preserve game and naturalists called for the preservation of scenic areas. A movement to create national parks had begun, with the first, Yellowstone, established by President Grant in 1872. The same year, the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska by J. Sterling Morton. States and territories began to follow this example, establishing a day for planting trees at a time of year appropriate for their climate. Consequently the United States does not have one day for Arbor Day but each state has its own date.

Even as people began to take an interest in planting trees and setting aside some forests as national parks, there was a disaster for eastern upland forests. The chestnut blight, a fungus, entered the country with imported Asian trees in about 1900. American chestnuts had no resistance to the blight. Valued a shade trees, harvested for their straight wood, and loved for their tasty nuts, these abundant trees all but vanished in a generation. Chestnuts are used in sweet and savory foods, and cultivated nuts are available in the fall. Those grown in the U.S. today are usually nuts from imported Asian trees, hybrids of Asian and American trees, or hybrids of Asian and European trees that resist the blight. Few native American chestnuts remain and saplings that grow in blight infested areas do not grow to the size of trees. The loss of the American Chestnut helped raise the awareness of the need to carefully inspect imported plants, and the necessity of protecting and planting native trees.

In Mary Hufford’s research she was able to talk to people who still remembered  the American Chestnut:

The chestnut: it was a wonderful tree that we lost,” interview with Bob Daniel, 1996.

Habits and habitats of chestnut and walnut,” conversation with Jim Circle, 1996.

In the first audio excerpt above, “tracking the nut trees,” Mary and Robert Allan mention collecting the chinquapin chestnut, while in “Gathering nuts” Ben Burnside says he can no longer find them. Chinquapins are a small bushy relative of the American chestnut that bears a similar edible nut. It has some resistance to the blight and so still remains in some areas but has diminished in others. The last grove of healthy American chestnut trees are in Wisconsin, planted outside of the normal range of the tree. These survive because the blight has not yet reached them. Today there are efforts to create blight-resistant American chestnuts that are not hybrids well as promising new ways of combating the blight itself that are being tested. So there is hope that the American chestnut tree as well as the closely related chinquapin might one day be restored to the American landscape.

A dark pie wedge with whipped cream on a plate.
Black walnut pie topped with whipped cream made by Shorty Bongalis. Detail of a photo by Mary Hufford, 1995. Coal River Folklife Collection.

The native black walnut tree, already mentioned in some of these audio excerpts, is prized for its dark heartwood and its edible nuts. It also produces a strong brown dye made from the hulls surrounding the nut that is still used to this day. Though some object to the strong flavor of black walnuts as compared to the Persian walnut, in West Virginia it is part of autumn’s bounty.  People often plant the tree on their property from wild seedlings or nuts in order to have them close at hand. This is a recording of Mr. and Mrs. Bongalis talking with Mary Hufford about black walnuts.

Shorty Bongalis’ walnut cracking place

Arbor day is celebrated not only as a day for planting trees, but for learning about the value of them as well.  So whether you are thinking of planting trees, or just want to learn more about trees, remember the native trees. Perhaps you might like to tell us about the uses some of the native trees of your own region. You can learn more about the many uses of trees in the Coal River region of West Virginia in the presentation Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia.

Comments (2)

  1. this does not tell me the name of the FRUIT OF A FRUIT TREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been doing a little homework on this.
    And he in fact bought me lunch because I stumbled upon it for him…
    lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!

    But yeah, thanks for spending some time to talk
    about this subject here on your website.

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