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Try It - Go Nuts!

Taking a hike under a multi-colored canopy of gold and red is a wonderful way to enjoy a cool autumn day. Take a leaf guide, such as The Fall Color Finder, to help identify leaf color, an envelope for some pretty leaves, and a bag for gathered nuts.

West Virginia has many trees and large shrubs that have different nuts. Throughout the fall months, squirrels and other small mammals can be observed gathering and burying nuts (or squirreling them away) to consume later. Despite the belief that chipmunks and squirrels can remember where they've buried all their nuts, some are definitely forgotten. Each spring those forgotten nuts sprout into "renegade" walnut and oak trees in the garden and yard: a gentle reminder of a squirrel's hard work.

Nuts are actually the "fruit" of certain trees. It's hard to believe, but the hardy walnut is actually related to apples, cherries and plums. Like their juicier counterparts, nuts start out as flowers. They differ by having a hard hull and only one seed.

The best time to go nut hunting is in October and November. By this time the nuts have completely finished their development and are ready to drop. If you take a hike after a big storm, you'll find a carpet of nuts on a forest floor.

Here are some of the nuts and acorns you will find as you take a walk in the woods, or even in your neighborhood, in the Mountain State.

Black Walnut

The black walnut tree used to be a staple in everyone's backyard orchard planted along with apple and peach trees. The nuts from this tree have a stronger taste than its English Walnut cousin and are more difficult to harvest. Years ago, black walnuts would be spread out on top of farm sheds to hasten their ripening. When the nuts have turned completely black, they are easier to shuck. But be careful! As the nuts ripen, they are filled with a dark black fluid which will stain everything. The liquid was once used as ink and is still used as a natural dye. 

Beechnut

As the beechnut or American beech tree gets ready for winter, its leaves turn a brownish russet color and the three-sided nuts it produces are borne in prickly burs. Because the nut is small and covered with a thin, leathery shell, sometimes people don't take the effort to harvest it. However, they do have a delicate, rich flavor.

Red Oaks

The mighty oak trees of West Virginia produce many different types of acorns, many of which were used as a food source for Native Americans and the early settlers. The leaves of the red oak turn a blazing red and the acorns are fitted with a shallow saucer-like cap that encloses just the base of the fruit.

Black Oak

The black oak is one of the largest and perhaps most common of the eastern oaks. Its leaves turn a dark orange-red, similar to the red oak. Its acorn though has a cap with a fringe of loose scales that encloses about three-fifths of the fruit.

White Oak

The white oak is common in almost every part of the state; at one point 30 percent of all timber was of this species. Its leaves turn brownish red in the fall and its acorns are about one inch in size with a thick, knobby cap.

Hazelnut

The American hazelnut is common in thickets throughout the state, especially along country roads. Native hazelnuts are much smaller than its imported cousin. The nuts are light brown and very sweet.

Note to parents! If nuts and acorns are gathered for decorations or collections, it's a good idea to freeze them for a few days to kill any bugs.

Nanci Bross-Fregonara


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