Nuts — The good kind
—by Steve Lekwa
We recently were subjected to two weeks of nearly continuous coverage of national political conventions. I’m sure that many good, sensible people attended both of them, but news being what it is, we were shown a good many nuts, as well. Little mention was made about conservation or our environment at either convention. At least I missed it if it somehow surfaced among all the other things being said (or yelled). We can be thankful that Iowa is home to at least some kinds of nuts, though. Our woods and wildlife would be in much worse shape if it were not so. They are a critical part of our forest ecology.
The economy was mentioned quite often by both parties. There’s no question that the most important economic nut in Iowa is its native Black Walnut. Iowa is known the world over as the source of some of the best Black Walnut wood that can be found. They’re often grown as a crop on tree farms. The dark brown beautifully grained heart wood is processed into miles of thin veneer for everything from wall paneling, to furniture, and guitars. Some of the most beautifully grained wood is turned into solid walnut gun stocks, furniture, and art/craft objects. The nuts, themselves, are a prime food for tree squirrels and humans with the patience to get the tasty and nutritious meats out of the flint-hard shells. They’re a popular addition to cookies and are among nature’s best sources of important Omega-3 fatty acids. A walnut cousin was quite common 50 years ago, but a fungal blight has nearly wiped out the Butternut. The nuts are still prized for their mild, buttery flavor where they can still be found, and the beautiful lighter colored wood is sometimes called White Walnut.
The oak family comes in two “colors”: red and white. We learned to remember the difference between them years ago by a somewhat racist means. The Red Oak group had pointy leaves like Indian’s pointy arrows and the White Oak group had rounded leaves like cowboy’s round-nosed bullets. The White Oak family is dominated by two very important forest trees, the White Oak and Burr Oak, and several less common varieties such as the Chikapin, Swamp White, and Post Oaks. All of the White Oak group produce acorns that are relished by wildlife as varied as woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Wild Turkeys, Wood Ducks, deer, squirrels, and deer mice. White Oak acorns make up an important part of their diet every fall and winter. Although seldom eaten by people today, Native Americans boiled the acorns with wood ashes and ate them directly or made flour out of them. The light colored and strong wood is prized for furniture, flooring, and window trim. The Red Oak group includes the Northern Red Oak, Black Oak, Pin Oak, and a few others that barely sneak into the southern edge of the state. They grow much faster than the White Oak group and are popular landscape trees. The wood is valuable, but less so than White Oak. Red Oak acorns are very high in tannic acid, and, although birds will eat them, they’re too bitter for most animals to eat until they’ve run out of better liked foods in late winter when uneaten Red Oak acorns can become an important food source.
The hickory family is also important for both its nuts and wood which has recently become quite popular for cabinet work. The most well known member is the Shagbark Hickory. The similar but less common Shellbark Hickory grows statewide, too, but the Mockernut Hickory is native only to southeastern Iowa. Their nuts are small, hard shelled, and difficult to crack. Sorting pieces of the sweet little meats from shell fragments takes even more patience than walnuts for people, but squirrels and mice relish them. Delicious Pecans grow along the Mississippi River and are actually members of the hickory family that are an important economic crop. Bitternut or Yellow Bud Hickory is also quite common, but its bitter nut is seldom eaten by wildlife.
The last nut to consider grows on a bush and, though once quite common across the wooded areas of the state, is now seldom seen. The Hazelnut was a plant of open savanna woodlands and woodland edges where it got plenty of light and was often exposed to fire. Hazel thickets readily re-sprouted after a fire, but haven’t fared well in the shaded competition from invasive honeysuckle and multiflora rose. The nuts are small, but tasty for humans and wildlife as might be expected since their larger domestic cousin is the popular filbert found in cans of mixed nuts.