They say California is the land of fruits and nuts, which wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t also partly true. But our native nuts–acorns, hazelnuts, and more–are central to life for both plants and wildlife, and they deserve some respect. And if some seeds we call nuts, like walnuts and pine nuts, don’t pass muster as true nuts with professional scientists, they’re not too shabby either.
A true nut is a dry fruit that, unlike the seed pod of a poppy, won’t open on its own. Like all seeds, nuts contain the first leaves (cotyledons) of the new tree or shrub, and endosperm, a tissue packed with nutrients to get the plant going before it can make food from sunlight. Inside a nut are fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals. Nuts may be nature’s perfect food.
- The spiny husks of the chinquapin don’t deter squirrels and other animals fond of the sweet nut inside. Photo by Charles Kennard.
The nut contains both the root and shoot of the future plant. After a nut drops to the ground and absorbs enough moisture through its hull, the tiny root goes down to begin collecting soil nutrients and the shoot goes up to reach the sunlight.
But only if the nut makes it past all its nut-loving neighbors. Many mammals, birds, and insects depend on nuts, especially acorns from our local oaks. Acorns can make up a third of the menu for some deer in the fall. Back when the Bay Area was thick with grizzly bears, local bears got thick on acorns.
Acorn woodpeckers stow acorns in holes they drill in granary trees, which may contain thousands of holes, each with its own acorn. Stellar’s and scrub jays, yellow-billed magpies, and many kinds of rodents bury acorns to save them for later. Jays may bury 5,000 in a season but retrieve only a third or half, leaving the rest to sprout, if they make it past the pocket gophers. All that forgetfulness can be a good thing: Buried acorns can survive at twice the rate of those that sprout on the surface. So giving food to jays is not a bad deal for those oak trees, whose offspring get spread far and wide.
- An acorn woodpecker with its namesake food. Acorns are on the menu for many animals. Photo by John Kesselring.
For centuries, the acorn has been essential to local native people. Traditionally, they gathered acorns in the fall and prepared them in a days-long process of grinding and leaching to remove bitterness. In good years, they would store hundreds of pounds of acorns in their own granaries.
Next to the acorn, the pine nut has been the most useful to native tribes. They beat the cones out of trees with sticks and break out the nutritious nuts. Black walnuts have been prized for food (the nuts themselves) and dye (from the hulls). These trees likely grew only sparsely in the Bay Area, but Walnut Creek had the largest grove.
Other nuts provide food for people and animals alike. Animals seek out the sweet chinquapin, despite its spiny jacket. Hazelnuts also provide delicious food for birds, squirrels, and other animals, as do bay nuts, which humans find tasty when roasted. And even reptiles and amphibians get in on the action: They don’t eat nuts, but they feast on insects who do.
So next time you walk in the woods, pause to honor the nut, the beginning and end of the forest, feeder of multitudes, kernel of truth.
This fall, get a little nutty learning about native nuts at family-friendly workshops, gatherings, and walks around the Bay. Tour the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden (“California Natives: Plants and People Walk,” November 11, 1-2 p.m.) to see how native people have used native plants, including nuts, for thousands of years. [$10 ($5 members) for one adult and child, including garden admission; botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu, (510)643-2755]
If you want to go really nuts over local plant foods at East Bay Regional Parks, you can learn how Ohlone people use native plants (“Ohlone Plant Use Walk,” December 12, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) or sample roasted peppernuts, acorn soup, and more (“Ohlone Plant Foods,” December 19, 1-2:30 p.m.), both free at Garin Regional Park. For a full plate of Ohlone culture and history, including plant foods, head to the Gathering of Ohlone Peoples at Coyote Hills Regional Park (October 3, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., free). [Info/registration: ebparks.org/activities, (888)EBPARKS, option 2,3]
To see nuts and fruits in the wild, join Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District docents at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve for the “Fall Edibles” hike (October 17, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., free). If you’d rather focus on oaks and acorns, try the “All About Oaks” hike at Los Trancos (October 17, 1-4 p.m., free). [Info: openspace.org, (650)691-1200]