The Natural History Of A Nut Tree

What Is A Nut?

What is a nut? Nutritionally, it is among the most valuable of all the fruits we eat. Yes, a nut is considered a fruit. When the fruit of a tree, or a shrub is enclosed in a bony, woody, or leathery covering that does not open when ripe, it is commonly called a nut. Some people indeed, live almost entirely on nuts (even today).

Nuts differ very much in their formation, and fruits like the walnut and chestnut, which have a thick outer covering that has to be removed before what we call the nutshell is exposed are really at a stage between a stone fruit, like the plum, and a nut that has its shell exposed, like the hazel nut.

Let's Take A Look At Some Of The Most Popular Nuts

Almond Tree In Bloom ~ Photo credit: Steve Andrews (Bard of Ely)
Almond Tree In Bloom ~ Photo credit: Steve Andrews (Bard of Ely)

The Almond

Of the commercial nuts, one of the most curious is the almond. The almond tree is really a near relative of the beach and nectarine, but the fruit, instead of having an outer covering of delicious pulp which develops and sweetens, has a covering that shrivels as the fruit ripens.

When the ripening process is complete, it becomes a horny kind of husk that splits open and frees the pit.

Two kinds of almond are grown, the sweet and the bitter. The sweet one is used for desserts on account of its rich and pleasant flavor, and the bitter one provides a flavoring extract. When the oil has been distilled from the bitter almond it contains prussic acid, from which it has to be freed before it can be used for cooking purposes.

The almond tree is very beautiful, one of the first to blossom in spring, and there is no more cheerful prophet of coming summer than this tree, bare of leaves, but clothed in a glorious mantle of pink blossoms.

In certain climates it does not have fruit, and where it does, there is a good deal of difference in the texture of the shells.

I once had in my garden, an almond tree that bore nuts the shells of which were so hard that they needed a hammer to break them. On the other hand, by careful selection of those seeds with comparatively thin shells and by constantly breeding from them, men have produced a variety of almond tree which yields nuts with shells so thin, that they can be broken with the fingers. This variety of plant is known as the Paper-shelled Almond.

Most of the almonds we eat used to come from France, Spain, Italy, and Northern Africa, along with California, which now grows large quantities of almonds for consumption. Today, the largest producing places for almonds is:

  • California (41% of world's almonds)
  • Spain (13% of world's almonds)
  • Syria (7% of world's almonds)
  • Italy (6% of world's almonds)
  • Morocco (5% of world's almonds)
  • Algeria (3% of world's almonds)
  • Tunisia (3% of world's almonds)
  • Greece (3% of world's almonds)
  • Lebanon (2% of world's almonds)
  • Turkey (2% of world's almonds)
  • China (2% of world's almonds)

When the nuts are ripe and the husks have split open, the branches of the trees are shaken or beaten, and the fruit drops onto canvas sheets laid on the ground. The nuts are freed of their hulls by machinery, and then dried and bleached by sulphur fumes.

It is therefore, quite a mistake to suppose that the almonds we buy with bright yellowish shells are necessarily of the best quality.

The Walnut

Another great favorite is the so-called English Walnut, though it was introduced by the Romans. It is a native of Greece and of Southern Asia.

The tree is very handsome, with graceful branches, and the warm hue of the leaves in spring adds a pleasing touch of contrast to the foliage of other trees.

The flowers begin to open in April and are in full bloom by the middle of May.

The wood of the trees is very valuable, the beautiful grain making it popular with cabinet-makers.

It is the best timber for gun stocks, and other items. It is so important that in the 17th century, it was regarded so highly that before a man could marry, he had to produce a certificate showing that he planted a certain number of walnut trees. This may have seemed a hard law at the time, but the plantations eventually enriched many of the planters. The tree grows rapidly, and the age at which it is usually cut for timber is fifty or sixty years.

Black Walnut still on tree.
Black Walnut still on tree.

The Way The Fruit Forms In The Walnut's Shell

When the fruit first forms, the shell inside is soft and the fruit, in its green outer case, is gathered for pickling.

Later, the shell inside hardens and the corrugated kernel becomes sweet and crisp.

About half the weight of the kernel is oil, and the walnut-oil pressed out from the kernel is used for a variety of purposes.

The tree can be raised from seed, or it can be propagated by budding or layers.

The walnut flourishes in any fertile soil so long as the subsoil is dry and the position is a little sheltered.

In parts of Europe, the walnut tree, in a line of trees, was often used as a screen for orchard trees in an exposed position. The common walnut ripes well in many climates, but bigger and finer nuts are produced in more temperate climates.

Several other species of walnut are grown in America. One of these, the Butternut, is cultivated for its oil. The nut is long and pointed, and from its clammy green husk good housewives in olden times obtained the stain with which they used to dye their homespun woolen garments. A palatable sauce is made from the nuts when they are green, and the ripe nuts are still popular.

The Black Walnut is a native of America, but has been introduced into Europe. It has an outer cover much rougher and rounder than that of the Common Walnut. The kernel is sweet, but the shell is exceedingly hard. Farmers, when they plant the nuts, always crack the shells so that the young plant can get out when it germinates. The wood, like that of the European Common Walnut, is much valued for wood working of all kinds.

Walnut Harvesting

The Delicious Hickory Nut

One of the favorite nuts in the United States, is the Hickory. There are several species, all natives of North America. Generally, they once only grew wild, but the trees have been improved by cultivation and selection.

Native Americans formerly used the nuts as a leading food and collected large quantities to store for the winter, and the early settlers to this country followed their example. Colonist would imitate the Native women in pounding the nuts, shells, and kernels together in a mortar, and after boiling them in water, they strained out the hickory-milk, to which they added corn meal, and from the product baked cakes on hot stones or in ovens.

Hickory wood is one of the strongest and toughest known. It was and still is used for wheels, tool handles, and other things where strength and elasticity are needed.

The Ways Of the Hazel, The Filbert And The Cob

The common Hazel nut bears an excellent nut. The plant rarely attains the dimensions of a tree, but is generally a shrub, growing in hedgerows and among the undergrowth of woods and coppice's. It flourishes even at a height of fifteen hundred feet above sea-level.

The hazel, a relative of the oak, beech, birch, alder, and chestnut, is a straggling bush, with long stems rising directly from the root, and the leaves are rounded and pointed, with a saw-like edge.

The male flowers, which hang in yellow catkins, appear before the leaves, and are, indeed, among the earliest harbingers of spring.

The female flowers, which are less conspicuous and are like swollen buds, can be seen on the upper parts of the shoots and branches and may be detected by means of the crimson threads that issue from them.

The leaves remain on the hazel until almost every other tree is bare. The bright yellow color in autumn gives a lovely touch of color to the countryside. The tree is not bare even after it has lost its leaves, for the catkins, then expand and remain all the winter.

The Beechnut

The beech nut, although a fine tree is scarcely worthy to be classed among our nuts trees, for its fruit is small, consisting of two triangular-pointed nuts in a seed-vessel which opens in four valves and is covered with blunt prickles. Beech nuts are of very little commercial value, but are still prized by many.

The Cashew

Cashew nuts are kidney-shaped, in a hard shell, and are borne on flesh-colored stalks that look something like fruits. They grow in tropical climates on a tree that looks very much like the walnut tree. The nuts are eaten roasted in oil, or salted like peanuts.

Amazon Cashew Tree

The Pistaschio Nut

Pistachio nuts, well known to cooks, are the seeds of a tree of the Cashew family (related to our sumac) and grow in primarily in Western Asia and Southern Europe.

The nuts are about the size and shape of a filbert, and have a pale green kernel with a yellow or reddish skin, and they are eaten in large quantities in India.

It used to be that in Europe and America, they were only used for flavoring. Thank goodness, we've learned to be passionate about Pistachio nuts and they are commonly sold in our supermarkets.

The Most Extraordinary Brazil Nut

One of the most extraordinary nuts in the world is the Brazil Nut of South America, which grows on a tree from one hundred to one hundred and twenty feet high.

The nuts as we buy them are shaped like the sections of an orange. They are in reality seeds and not true fruits like walnuts, and the other nuts, I've mentioned above.

They are contained in a large woody seed-vessel nearly as big as a man's head, and so heavy that, if one fell from seventy or eighty feet upon the head of a person walking or standing beneath, it would probably kill them.

The natives of the Brazilian forest, when walking in the neighborhood of the trees at the time the nuts ripen, cover their shoulders and heads with a strong hat of wood.

Inside the massive wooden seed-vessel are four divisions, and in each of those divisions lie a number of the triangular nuts that we know.

The whole fruit is a truly marvelous production, and the massive seed-vessel grows in fifty or sixty days.

The outer wooden case is at least half an inch thick and is difficult to open even with the sharpest instrument.

The nuts contain as much as fifty-six percent oil, and this is pressed out by the natives and often in the past was used for lighting purposes.

If we cut a Brazil nut flat at one end, and sharpen the other end to a point, like a wick, we can stand the nut on a plate, light the wick, and see it burn brightly enough to lighten a whole room. This gives you an idea of how much oil it contains.

How To Select A Brazil Nut

The Health Benefits Of Brazil Nuts

Brazil nuts are one of the leading sources of selenium and are considered essential to an anti-cancer diet.

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Comments 23 comments

BJC profile image

BJC 7 years ago from Florida

Loved the article, great pictures. I love nuts


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States Author

Thanks BJC! Me too!


nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

I remember trying to get Brazil nuts open when I was a kid. The nutcracker would slip and pinch my hand. Never liked those things!


Ginn Navarre profile image

Ginn Navarre 7 years ago

Loved this article. I have used the walnut for dying wool for spinning. love ya,


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 7 years ago from North America

I love the nuts you've mentioned and they are very good nutritionally, so I like this Hub. Thumbs up!


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States Author

Thanks nicomp! I buy them already cracked, seems easier.

Thanks Ginn Navarre! I used to give them away by the 50# bag fulls in WV. Love you.

Thanks Patty Inglish, MS!


Nancy's Niche profile image

Nancy's Niche 7 years ago from USA

Jerilee, another great article with great illustrative pictures...I love Cashews and Pistachios...Thanks for the info on nuts…


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Nancy's Niche! I'm pretty fond of Pistachios.


R Burow profile image

R Burow 7 years ago from Florida, United States

A fantastic hub with wonderful illustrations.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States Author

Thanks R Burow!


Yangtze profile image

Yangtze 7 years ago

A great detailed illustration to the nut. I have known more information from this helpful hub!


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Yangtze! I always try to share what little I know.


Lgali profile image

Lgali 7 years ago

I become nut after reading nut history good hub thanks


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Lgali! Missed your comment somehow when you wrote it.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

great hub very informative . May be you would like to read my hub " The mighty oaks of England"


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks D.A.L. I'll check it out.


chesversem profile image

chesversem 6 years ago

health benefits of eating nuts very informative nice hub.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks chesversem!


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 6 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

I'd like to share that hickory nut trees at the turn of the 20th century were everywhere in Ohio, free for foraging. My grandmother made the most wonderful hickory nut cake from scratch. Her daughter still has the pounding stone my grandmother used to separate the nut from the hull. Thanks for bringing back such good memories.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Sally's Trove! I would have loved to have tasted that cake. I sometimes think that modern woman has lost the best of the recipes by not baking from scratch.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

I love nuts! I really could eat them instead of meat.


jennyjenny profile image

jennyjenny 5 years ago from Somewhere in Michigan

Great Hub! Extremely informative and very useful! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. It's really great to see someone with a passion for food and health combined! What a gorgeous pic of the almond tree in bloom! :) Thanks again!


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks jennyjenny! I enjoyed writing this article.

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