Edible Hickory Nuts: A Taste Test

I recently completed a project that I began last Fall.

On nature walks in the park in the Fall, I am frequently asked about the hickory nuts we find: “Are they edible”? The short answer is yes. The question, however, deserves a fuller response.

To say that something is “edible” is, in a sense, simply to say that it is safe to eat; it is not poisonous and will not make the eater sick. Hickory nuts are definitely edible in this sense. This is only the first consideration, though, for someone who is actually considering eating something found in its natural state. Not everything edible is something that one wants to consume. Are the hickory nuts of Eliza Howell Park ones that we are likely to find pleasant to eat?

To the best of my knowledge, there are three species of hickory nut trees in Eliza Howell: Bitternut Hickory, Shagbark Hickory, Pignut Hickory. The trees are not numerous, but in some years all three produce bumper crops and the nuts are easy to find on the ground. Bitternut appears to be the most common of the hickories in the park.

This picture depicts each Eliza Howell hickory species in the progression from green nut to ripening nut to the nut after the outer hull is removed.

20180219_094534

The first clue to tastiness might be what our ancestors thought when the species got their common  names. “Bitter” clearly suggests unpleasant. And identifying something as “pig feed” is not normally a recommendation for human consumption. In the past, Pignut Hickory nuts were commonly part of the annual diet of hogs.

The other species, on the other hand, was identified by its bark: the trunk has large strips of peeling bark. Calling attention to the bark helps to provide identification if one wants to locate a tree for purposes of collecting nuts.  Shagbark is a hickory that nearly everyone agrees is tasty as well as edible.

20180219_100719

I have eaten Shagbark Hickory nuts many times. We collected them every Fall for Winter eating when I was young. Having no memory of ever eating Bitternut or Pignut, I browsed the reports and descriptions of others. There appears to be general agreement that Bitternut nuts are not tasty, but there is less agreement on Pignut. Most, but not all, describe it as unpleasant to eat.

I decided to do a taste test. I harvested a few nuts of each species in the Fall and this February I ate some of each.

The Shagbark was enjoyable, as remembered.

I found little difference between Bitternut and Pignut. My assessment of these two: On the one hand, if I were hungry, they would serve as an acceptable source of nutrition; on the other hand, I do not intend to bring them home to eat. I am perfectly pleased to let wildlife have them (and I do see from the evidence in the snow that squirrels have, in fact, been using them for Winter food this year).

20180219_094954

There is an old Roman (Latin) saying: “De gustibus non est disputandum.” We should not dispute matters of taste. What one person likes another might not – and that does not make either wrong. My opinion on the taste of the different hickory nuts found in Eliza Howell Park is just one person’s opinion. But this coming Fall, when asked if the hickory nuts we step on are edible, I can at least speak as one who has tasted them.

The Woodpeckers of Eliza Howell Park

In January 2018, I am starting my 14th year of recorded bird walks in Eliza Howell Park, but it doesn’t take all these records to know that, with so many birds migrating to warmer climates for the winter, January and February are the months with the fewest number of species. Even in the heart of winter, however, and far from any bird feeders, there are some species that I regularly see.

Two of the small number of species that I see every January are woodpeckers – the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. When first seen, the Red-bellied Woodpecker looks like it should be called “red-headed” (more about this below), but sometimes, as in this picture, the so-called red belly is noticeable.

red-bellied woodpkr on branch

Photo by Margaret Weber

The red-bellied is bright, loud, and large enough to be noticed easily, especially when there are no leaves on the trees. The smaller, quieter, less bright Downy Woodpecker is more likely to be lower and closer to the observer.

20171231_190228

Photo by Margaret Weber

There are, in total, 6 different kinds of woodpeckers that occur in the park almost every year. Three are found year-round: Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpecker. The Hairy Woodpecker (not pictured) is slightly larger than the Downy but otherwise looks almost exactly like it. It is less common at Eliza Howell, though it does breed here.

In the spring and again in the fall, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrates through the area, seen for a few days only. It too has a questionable name – the “yellow bellied” part, not the “sapsucker” part. The yellow is somewhat visible in adults, but is not the most obvious characteristic. This picture is of an immature, without the red on the head or throat and without noticeable yellow, but it shows clearly the line of holes that the sapsucker makes to collect sap. It revisits the holes to lap up the sap and to eat any insects that may get caught there.

immature yellow bellied

Photo by Margaret Weber

The most striking species of woodpecker to be seen in the park is also the most rare and the least predictable. The Red-headed Woodpecker is not very common in the Detroit area generally and shows up in Eliza Howell only about once a year, for a few days. In 2017, one was present in May (when this picture was taken) and one was also seen for several days in the summer.

(When someone asks why the “red-bellied” is not called the “red-headed,” I suggest that probably this bird has a priority claim to the name.)

redheaded woodpecker EH 0517

Photo by Margaret Weber

The 6th woodpecker species in the park is the Northern Flicker. The flicker is a summer resident, arriving in the spring and leaving in the fall and is the fourth woodpecker that nests here. It is different from most other woodpeckers in that it often feeds on the ground, consuming large numbers of ants.

flicker colors

Photo by Margaret Weber

Woodpeckers typically drill holes in dead trees for nesting. These holes have quite small openings, but are deep. In 2017, I watched, over a period of days, as Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers drilled holes in trees about 100 yards apart. I watched as a red-bellied tried to drive a flicker away from the tree where the flicker was drilling its hole. I later watched as, in an different part of the park, red-bellieds and flickers were both carrying feed to their young in nests about 15-20 feet apart in the same dead tree. Interesting interactions between the two species.

In this picture, a Red-bellied Woodpecker is “spitting” out chips from the nesting hole it is making.

red bellied yuck

Photo by Margaret Weber

I started these thoughts by looking forward to seeing woodpeckers in winter. I end by looking backward to 2017. It is common, I suppose, for a nature student to think in terms of annual cycles.

Bald-Faced Hornet Nests

Bald-Faced Hornet Nests

Most visitors to Eliza Howell Park never see them, but there are many hundreds of Bald-faced Hornets here every summer. They are a native North American social wasp, not a true hornet, and build new nests each year. They are insect eaters much more than nectar collectors, so are not found on flowers as much as bees.

They do visit flowers more late in the season, however, and that provides the best opportunity to see what they really look like. The white on the face accounts for the “bald-faced” name (they are also sometimes called “White-faced Hornets”).

20170901_155859

Bald-faced Hornets are best known by the nests they make, usually placed in tree branches and hidden in the leaves. In the last couple of years, I have kept a record of each nest that I have observed in the park. I don’t finish my count until sometime in December, when they are more visible with the leaves gone. Since paying closer attention, I have seen at least 10 nests annually – and have no doubt missed a number.

The nests are gray and sort of football-shaped, though more the size of a basketball, typically located high in a deciduous tree.

20171206_100408

Fortunately, most years I find at least one that is low enough to be observed more carefully.

20171121_165513

When these low nests are pointed out during nature walks before frost brings an end to hornet season, participants are often reluctant to approach too closely. It is a reasonable reluctance, since the greatest risk of being stung is from hornets protecting their colony. But it is not a big risk if one remains a few feet away.

The nests are made of paper-like material, wood fibers that have been mixed with saliva. The opening for going and coming is at/near the bottom of the nest.

20171206_100740

Each colony is reported to have, at maturity, 100-400 individuals, made up of infertile female workers, reproductive females, and male drones. And, of course, a queen. Queens are the only Bald-faced Hornets that survive the winter, wintering in a sheltered place in trees or the ground. In the spring each queen that has survived begins to build a nest. She makes a few brood cells, deposits eggs in them, and feeds the larvae. The first brood then takes over nest building, food collection, and feeding.

When the nests are broken open after the hornets are gone, one can see the layers of cells that look like honeybee combs. There are tiers of combs within the thicker outer shell.

20171219_093832

It is likely that more queens survive the winter in mild-weather years. This might account for the large number of nests I noted these last two years, following two mild winters. Or I may just be getting a little better about spotting the nests. It will be interesting to see what the findings are next year if this winter is a hard one.

Persistent Sumac Seed Clusters

Staghorn sumac is an attention grabber from July right through the winter. In the summer, the large red fruit cluster is already present; in the fall the leaves are a brilliant red well before the leaves turn on most other trees; in winter, the fruit clusters hang on when very little fruit remains on other trees in the park, providing sustenance both for birds and bird watchers on cold days.

Now, in early December, the robins that seem to have a particular sequence of moving from one type of berry to the next have arrived at the sumac in significant numbers. This is what they see up close.

20171209_112123-1

Each of the little fuzzy fruits contains just one seed and the full cluster may contain as many as 700 seeds. The seed clusters grow at the end of stems on the deciduous shrubs or small trees, which may grow to some 20 feet. The plants grow in colonies or thickets and, in Eliza Howell, there is a grouping along the nature path leading to the river from the car loop.

The seed clusters grow in early summer, clearly noticeable by the fourth of July.

20171211_111502          July 5, 2017

Staghorn sumac got the name “staghorn” from the velvety covering of bare twigs in winter, which suggested (to someone) the velvet on new antlers. They have crooked, leaning trunks and large leaves. Some plants are male and some female; only female trees produce flowers and berries. The colony along the nature path is made up of female plants.

The fruit is edible and is used by some people to make a drink, which is compared to lemonade. Others dry and grind the fruit to use as a spice. The fruit is ready for human harvesting, should one want to do so, in late August or so. A variety of wildlife harvest the fruit later, often over the winter.

20170831_112149           August 31, 2017

In September and October, the attractive red of the seed clusters is nearly overwhelmed by the brighter red of the leaves.

 

20170914_091435 (1)        September 1 4, 2017

20171024_092224 (2)      October, 24, 2017

By the time December and the first snows come, the leaves are long gone and wildlife has begun to forage on the persistently standing seed clusters.

20171209_112321     December 9, 2017

A SENSE OF WONDER

Since January 1, 2005, I have taken over 1000 nature walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit.

20170915_105040

In getting started on this project, I was influenced by the advice of different naturalists over the years: if you really want to get to know nature well, take the same walk repeatedly. Good advice. I am finding that repeated visits to the same area — and good record keeping — do lead to a much better knowledge of the flora and fauna and to a much clearer recognition of the ways nature changes with the seasons.

Shortly before she died in 1964, Rachel Carson wrote an essay entitled “The Sense of Wonder,” reflecting upon a child’s sense of wonder and the risk that, without nourishment, it will not last until adulthood.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

My childhood was many years ago, but my feeling of wonder and awe, my love and enjoyment of nature, grows the more I observe, learn, and understand. This leads naturally to a desire to share these experiences with others.

Eliza Howell Park is a Detroit city park, large (about 250 acres) and includes a diversity of habitats. The Upper and Main branches of the Rouge River meet in the park, with bottomland that is flooded on many occasions. A significant portion of the park is wooded and there is a large open area spotted with mature trees.

20171207_120715

The park is close to home and provides an excellent opportunity for me to experience the natural world in its wonder and excitement and beauty, right in the heart of a major urban area. I continue to be excited by what nature presents in season after season.