Taking shelter from the nuts

Published 7:22 pm Tuesday, July 4, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

 “Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic

Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.”

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 We are under siege. Shots are fired ‘round the clock. Some just hit the deck outside with a loud THWAK! Some hit the roof and then bounce to the deck. The worst are the ones that hit the plexiglass skylight.

Hickory nuts. Falling hickory nuts. Slightly smaller than a golf ball and just as dense, they are attacking us without any ceasefire, without any mercy.

We get them every year, but usually later in the summer, usually far fewer. What’s a naturalist to do but research what’s going on? We’ve had bad early years before — one year we had a faculty party and had to issue stainless steel mixing bowls to our guests as helmets.

But this year? Well….

Apparently, hickory trees bear their nuts in a three-year cycle: one year heavy, one year light, and the third nearly nonexistent. We must have forgotten during the past two years.

There are lots of kinds of hickory— shagbark, shellbark, butternut, pignut and so on. Their meat is the densest of all nuts. They can be opened with a large nutcracker, a vise, or laid on a rock and struck with a hammer.

The meat is very nutritious, full of oils and antioxidants. The shagbark hickory is, according to one famous chef, “the black truffle of nuts, much better than pecans or walnuts.” They must be roasted before eating.

The wood is also highly prized for many reasons — other than the hickory stick of “School Days” fame. It’s widely used to smoke meat. It’s hard and durable, highly sought after for use in paneling. Native Americans made their bows of hickory.

So, back to the various types and the one raining down on us — are they the highly coveted, delicious shagbarks? No, I believe we have the elusive bitternut variety.

The squirrels won’t even eat them till they’re starving, in late winter. For now, they just nibble on the husks, sending fragments down onto the deck, and bury the ones in the yard for hard times.

Bitternut hickories grow to about 115 feet with a diameter of three feet— They grow well in dry, poor soil. They are very similar to pecans in every way but taste. Oh, well.

So every 30 seconds, day and night, a nut hits the deck, the roof and deck, or the skylight with a THWAK!

Hope you had a happy and peaceful Fourth of July.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.