Nutty for Nuts

I remember mom having nuts in the shell on the coffee table during the holidays. Although I didn't eat many nuts at that time, I liked using the little tools to crack open the nut and dig out its sweet inner meat. Let's look at the plants that give us these delicious morsels.

There are two types of walnuts: Black and English. In the shell nut mixes feature English walnuts (Juglans regia), whose light brown thinner shell is much easier to crack. English walnuts are native to China and grow on medium to large trees. Although some cultivars will grow here, most will not survive our cold winters.

True to its name, Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) are native to South America. They grow on long-living, large trees in the Amazon rainforest. Fruits are large capsules that resemble a coconut. Arranged like orange slices within the capsule are eight to 24 triangular shaped seeds.

Hazelnuts are also known as filberts. Although we have a native American filbert (Corylus americana), it is the European filbert (Corylus avellana) that is sold commercially for nut production. Both grow on medium sized shrubs or small trees.

Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are native here, but commercial production is best in the warmer South. This large hickory tree has an oval nut that splits readily into four equal quarters (valves).

The almond (Prunus amygdalus) is a deciduous tree native to the Middle East. Almonds are closely related to peaches and are not true nuts. Similar to the peach, almonds are drupes. Instead of fleshy like a peach, almond fruits have a leathery green outer coat with a hard shell (pit). Inside the shell is the edible almond nut.

Here are some interesting facts about a few other nuts we love to eat.

  • Cashews (Anacardium occidentale) are the fruit of tropical evergreen trees. The curve-shaped "nut" is a drupe that sprouts from its fruit - the cashew apple. Cashews are in the same family as poison ivy, and thus the raw nut shells can cause dermatitis.
  • Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are probably the most famous "nut" in the United States. Also called the groundnut since it grows underground, peanuts are legumes similar to peas and beans. One of our first Extension Ag Agents, George Washington Carver was instrumental in developing the little-known peanut into the most important commercial nut crop of today.
  • Macadamia (Macadamia tetraphylla) are produced on trees in Hawaii.
  • Pine nuts are the nuts of certain pine trees, usually the pignolia nut (Pinus pinea). Also called pinon nuts, they are harvest by hand and thus can be expensive.

The next time you eat pecan pie, peanut butter cookies, or drink almond milk, think about the plant that produced the sweet treat.