For anyone interested in botany or plants in general, agriculture, or food/cooking, this book is a fascinating must-read. It contains historical and cultural information about the twelve most popular "nuts" (which includes foods technically not nuts, such as peanuts and sunflower seeds), plus thirty other lesser edible nuts, such as acorns, pine nuts, and water chestnuts. In addition, there are numerous pages of nut recipes included. First published in 1984, some data will obviously be outdated, but most pages are filled with fun and interesting facts.
To give you an idea of the wide range of information covered for each nut, I will share a smattering for each of the twelve major nuts, then a bit about the lesser ones.
Almonds: Related to peaches, the cultivars used for modern production are often grafted to a peach rootstock. Almonds come in sweet and bitter varieties. The bitter are poisonous, and are used for cosmetics, and also for flavoring by removing the cyanide. Almond culture is known to have existed in Palestine as early as 1700 B.C., and almonds are mentioned in the Bible from Genesis to later books. In the U.S. almonds are successfully commercially cultivated only in certain parts of California because of the specific climate requirements. Almonds are pollinated by bees, and require a different variety for successful pollination. The largest California almond co-op, the California Almond Growers Exchange sold under the Blue Diamond name, was founded in 1910. Shells are burned to provide electricity. Almonds are the most important and versatile of all the tree nuts. Included are recipes for entrees and deserts.
Brazil Nuts: This was a very interesting chapter! Brazil Nut trees are huge and grow wild in the Amazon basin of Brazil and other parts of South America. Their size, up to 150 feet tall and four to eight feet wide, plus the fact that they take 12-15 years to produce fruit has made cultivation nearly impossible, and certainly not lucrative. Because of this, there are probably hundreds of thousands of trees deep in the forest that cannot even be reached. Poor jungle laborers, called castanheiros, are the ones who risk their lives and are paid little to collect these nuts. (Hopefully the conditions have improved since this book was written.) The nuts, like most other nuts, are encased in a fibrous shell which, in this case, looks like a coconut. Brazil nuts, being wedge-shaped look almost like orange sections in the round outer shell, which can weight up to four pounds. Getting hit on the head with one can be fatal.
Cashews: Cashews don't grow like most other nuts, encased in an outer fibrous shell. When fully mature, they hang below the swollen pear-shaped stalk called the "apple," which is also edible. One single kidney-shaped cashew forms below the stalk in a shell. The shell must be roasted and the toxic liquid drained off below consumption, or one's mouth will burn with blisters. CNSL (caustic nut shell liquid) is used for varnishes and paints, clutches and brakes. Cashew trees require tropical heat and produce in three to four years. Cashews are related to pistachios, mangos, and poison ivy, oak and sumac.
Chestnuts: Chestnuts have a long history on the planet. The existed in Alaska and Greenland during the Tertiary period, about 65 million years ago, and in Europe during the Cretaceous period, 75 to 100 million years ago. The American Chestnut was extremely useful for food products and lumber during the early years of settling here, but by the mid 1900s, nearly all trees had succumbed to chestnut blight. Most chestnuts sold in the U.S. come from Italy. Chestnuts are not related to horse chestnuts or buckeyes.
Coconuts: The coconut palm is an extremely useful plant. No part gets wasted. In addition to eating the coconut meat, the liquid inside the nut can be drunk. The shell can be used as a bowl or cup, or carved into utensils. The husk is made into rope and textiles. The wood is used for canoes and furniture, and the leaves for roofing and clothing. The shells can also be burnt for fuel. The "heart of palm," the terminal bud at the top of the tree is a delicacy, but the tree will die if removed. The coconut palm is a single-stemmed plant, and is propagated by seed. Nuts that fall into the ocean can travel many miles until they are washed up on land, where they will sprout. There are over 3,000 species of palm, but only one species of coconut, although there are over 80 varieties. One palm may produce 50 to 70 nuts per year. They are indispensable for Pacific Island dwellers.
Filberts: Filberts are also known as hazelnuts. The shrub-like trees often are grown in clusters. They require a specific climate with mild winters, warm springs, late freezes and cool summers. Turkey is the largest producer of filberts. Italy and Spain also produce them commercially, and in the U.S. they are grown in the Pacific Northwest. The nuts grow in husks, which are removed after drying.
Macadamia Nuts: These are a relatively new crop, first cultivated for production in Australia in 1858, and "the only native Australian plant ever cultivated as a commercial food crop." There are two edible species, one with a smooth shell and the other rough. The tree is large, with evergreen leaves like holly. Macadamias can self-pollinate and a tree will begin producing in about six to seven years. They have a long and productive life. As of the writing of this book, the original tree planted by Walter Hill in 1858 was still alive. Soon after, they were brought to Hawaii and careful breeding was done for large-scale production.
Peanuts: Peanuts were known to exist as far back as 1200 to 1500 B.C. in Peru. They were unknown in Europe before Columbus. Spanish and Portuguese conquerors and merchants distributed them to Africa, and the Orient. Peanuts were easily established in Africa, and boatloads of them came over to America with the slaves. They quickly became popular and profitable in the south. Peanuts are not really a nut but a legume, related to beans. "A glass of milk and two peanut butter sandwiches equals eighty-three per cent of a growing child's daily need for protein." George Washington Carver, a former slave, earned a master's degree in agriculture. He taught at Tuskegee Institute for forty-seven years and developed over 300 products made from peanuts, including foods, soaps, and plastic. He assisted blacks in the south to farm peanuts. The Venetian immigrant Amedeo Obici founded the Planters Company, which became an industrial giant in peanuts and peanut products.
Pecans: Pecans are native to North America. Many American Indians relied on them for food well before the invasion of European settlers. Pecans are related to walnuts and hickory nuts. Texas was an especially important state in the eventual commercialization of pecans. Texan H.A. Halbert spent forty years traveling Texas and developing a method of successful propagation called topworking.. He died at age 77 when he fell out of a pecan tree. But the first person to successfully use this grafting method was a Louisiana slave named Antoine, at the Oak Alley plantation. His best result became known as Centennial (in 1876)."Since 1848, more than 500 other pecan cultivars have been named." It wasn't until 1920 that pecans finally became commercially successful. And unlike many other types of nuts, growing is not limited to a specific area, but a large range of southern and middle states. [There are even some hardy varieties that grow up north because I have some here on the farm.]
Pistachio Nuts: Pistachios have been around for a long time! When archaeologists investigated an ancient settlement in Jordan, they found a perfectly preserved, carbonized pile of these nuts dating back to 6760 B.C.. Another discovery of ancient pistachios and almonds in Turkey was even older—dating from 7000 B. C.. Pistachios probably originated in Asia and Asia Minor, and are found growing wild in the Middle East. They were considered delicacies of the upper class: those with "sophisticated tastes." However, wild varieties were also food staples to nomadic tribes of the Middle east. Pistachios are related to cashews, mangos, poison ivy, oak and sumac. One variety of pistachio contains a resin used for chewing gum, and also for varnish. The wild, nomadic varieties have a turpentine-like taste. Pistachio trees come in male and female. Wind blows the pollen from the male trees to the females. Trees can live up to 700 years.
Sunflower Seeds: I love sunflowers and grow many different varieties every year. I don't eat the seed—I let them mature on the plants to feed the wild critters. Sunflowers are heliotropic, in other words, the flower twists to follow the sun. Once the outer petals are fully developed, the head remains facing east. Rosengarten says the heads take three to four months to mature. Perhaps in certain varieties they do, but my experience has been that they are very fast growing, particularly the smaller multi-floral types. I can (and do) plant them in July, and get nice flowers by late summer/early fall, although these rarely produce seeds for human consumption. Sunflowers are mostly annual, but there are perennial varieties, too. Sunflowers are related to Jerusalem artichokes. There are over fifty species of Helianthus, and, especially with modern hybrids, numerous varieties that come in just about every color but blue and true purple. (There was a type with purple seed hulls, however, used by the Hopi as dye.) Sunflowers range in height from one foot or less to over twelve feet. They probably originated in the southwestern U.S. and were used by the Native Americans as food staples and for medicinal use. Russia is the most important producer of commercial sunflower seed. The U.S. is second. The most important products from sunflower seeds are as a snack food (the larger striped seeds), and oil (the smaller black seeds). Sunflower oil contains no cholesterol. Sunflower meal is also used for livestock feed, and the seeds for bird food. The hulls can be burned as fuel.
Walnuts: Walnuts are naturally found across a wide area of the globe, including North and South America, east Asia, and southeastern Europe. The most popular is the Persian or English Walnut. Petrified walnuts were found at the site of the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption in A. D. 79. The nutmeat looks like a human brain, and because of that doctors in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thought that it would cure a head wound and the mentally ill:
William Cole, a famous English herbalist, stated in his work Adam in Eden (1657): "If the wall-nut Kernel be bruised, and moystned with the quintessence of Wine and laid upon the Crown of the Head, it comforts the brain and head mightily."
All walnuts are edible. Black walnuts have a stronger flavor than Persian, and are native to eastern U.S. and Canada. Black walnuts are much more expensive than Persian, and nearly all the commercial crops are from wild trees, They are not economically feasible to cultivate. Black walnut wood is highly valued.
That ends the chapters on the twelve top nuts! Here are a few tidbits from the thirty lesser nuts:
Acorns are mostly edible but some very bitter. Leave 'em for the squirrels.
Betel Nuts come from the betel nut palm. They are chewed, like tobacco, staining the teeth black. This used to be considered beautiful in India and other Asian countries, but is not any more. Still many people are addicted to them because they contain a narcotic. Kaspar Almayer's Malaysian wife was a betel nut chewer in Almayer's Folly.
Ginkgo Nuts are the real dinosaurs of the nut world, whose relatives date back 125 million years ago. It is a sacred tree to Buddhists and cultivated in their temple courtyards.
Jack Nut fruits weight forty to fifty pounds and grow out of the trunk or large branches of the tree. The fruits are a sweet, edible pulp, each one containing hundreds of edible seeds. They are tropical and grow in rain forest of India and Malaysia.
Pine Nuts actually come from only two distinct types of pine trees. Pignolia comes from Italian Stone pines. Lesser known piñon comes from the piñon pine in western U.S., mostly Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The trees grow wild and in abundance, but do not reach full production for seventy-five years, making it not feasible to cultivate. The Native Americans in the west and southwest valued the nuts as a food source.
In all, this is just a very cool book, with lots of interesting information written in a comfortable, easily readable format. Plus it contains illustrations and photos on nearly every page.
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