Category Archives: Nuts

American Chestnuts Too Rare to Roast

American chestnut leaves, nut husks and nuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 December 2023

The Nutty Series: American chestnut

‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / And folks dressed up like Eskimos.’

NPR: The Story Behind the Christmas Song

Despite the popularity of The Christmas Song, you’ll never find nuts of the American chestnut in the wild. By the time The Christmas Song was written in 1945 mature American chestnuts were nearly gone from North America. Today there are so few surviving mature trees that Wikipedia lists only 25 locations though people are always searching.

American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) used to be more abundant than oaks within their native range.

Former range of the American chestnut (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Then in the late 1800s someone imported Japanese chestnut trees that had chestnut blight. Asian chestnuts are immune, American trees are not. First noticed at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, chestnut blight spread quickly and nothing could stop it. By 1950 mature American chestnut trees were gone throughout their range.

Chestnut blight is caused by a fungus that kills the above-ground portion of the tree by getting under the bark and girdling the trunk.

Chestnut blight on an American chestnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The stump lives and sends up seedlings though they die as saplings. The process repeats — seedlings, sapling, death. Most stumps are at least a hundred years old.

To find a chestnut in the woods I look for the leaves at knee height. The photo below shows a typical American chestnut stump with seedlings. This one has a dead sapling as well.

American chestnut seedlings sprouting from a stump surrounding a sapling that died of blight (photo by Richard Gardner,

For over 70 years arborists have been searching for a cure for chestnut blight and trying to breed immune American chestnuts. They have crossed the American chestnut with Chinese chestnuts, then back-crossed the hybrid to another American chestnut. These efforts, supported by The American Chestnut Foundation among many others, take decades to realize any success.

There are several experimental orchards in Pennsylvania. All are protected from deer.

American chestnut orchard in PA, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Arborists collect the nuts, not to roast but to plant, so we’ll have more chestnuts some day.

American chestnut nuts in husk (photo by USDA Forest Service – Southern Research Station , USDA Forest Service, SRS,

As potentially successful hybrids become available, they are planted more widely — still in protected areas — to test their immunity and build back the chestnut population.

Planting an American chestnut orchard at Sky Meadows, VA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At these locations the leaves are above knee height.

American chestnut leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps in one to two hundred years the nuts of American chestnuts will be easy to find and we’ll appreciate the first phrase of The Christmas Song again.

(credits are in the captions)

Acorns Are Complicated

Red oak acorns on the branch (photo by Kate St. John)

13 December 2023

The Nutty Series: Acorns and the Quercus genus

Every day I try to bring you answers about nature and birds, sometimes to questions we never thought to ask, but today I have more questions than answers about acorns.

Acorns are complicated because oaks are extremely diverse. There are about 500 species in the Quercus genus (oaks) plus about 180 hybrids, all of them native to the Northern Hemisphere and Asia.

Global distribution of ”Quercus” (oaks). The New and Old World parts are separate clades (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The complete phylogeny diagram is densely packed. (If you’d like to see it up close, click here for the full-size version.)

North America has the largest number of native oak species (160 in Mexico, about 90 in the US), which makes identifying them a challenge. Sibley’s Guide to Trees illustrates 69 native and 7 imported oaks in North America. Pittsburgh is on Sibley’s range maps for these oak species but the list is not exhaustive because they hybridize.

  • Red Oak Group
    • Northern Red Oak
    • Eastern Black Oak
    • Pin Oak
    • Scarlet Oak
    • Bear Oak
    • Shingle Oak
  • White Oak Group
    • Eastern White Oak
    • Swamp White Oak
    • Burr Oak
    • Chestnut Oak
    • Common Chinkapin Oak
    • (non-native) English Oak

The best I can do in the field is divide them into the red oak or white oak group based on buds, bark and leaves. Knowing this, I balk at identifying acorns down to the species level. There is only so much room in my brain and I’m saving it for birds.

So with that in mind here are a few acorns I’ve found in Pittsburgh recently. What exact species are they? The only one I know for sure is the burr oak.

Pin oak acorns found on Devonshire St sidewalk (photo by Kate St. John) — see comments for ID
Bur oak acorn, Schenley Park, Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
White oak acorn without its cap (photo by Kate St. John)
Red oak acorns and a mix of fallen leaves, Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Buckeyes and Horse Chestnuts

Two Buckeyes: Horsechestnut (large) and bottlebrush buckeye (small), photographed three months after harvest by Kate St. John

6 December 2023

The Nutty Series: Buckeyes are the Aesculus genus

Buckeyes have always been one of my favorite objects because their skin is smooth and shiny fresh out of the husk, perfect to carry in my pocket like a worry stone.

In America, the native Aesculus are commonly
called “buckeyes,” a name derived from the
resemblance of the shiny seed to the eye of a
deer [a buck’s eye]. In the Old World, they’re called “horse
chestnuts”—a name that arose from the belief
that the trees were closely related to edible
chestnuts (Castanea species), and because the
seeds were fed to horses as a medicinal treatment for chest complaints and worm diseases.

Arboretum FOundation (in Seattle): The Many Faces of Aesculus

In Pittsburgh we call all of them “buckeyes.”

Let’s go backwards in the growing season from nut to husk, flower and leaf by examining buckeyes planted in Schenley Park more than 100 years ago.

The large nut pictured at top left is from a European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) native to Albania, Bulgaria, mainland Greece and North Macedonia. Each husk contains one to three nuts. Sometimes they’re flat on one side. My favorites are the round ones.

Horsechestnut husks and nuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On the tree, horse chestnut husks are spiny.

Horsechestnut fruit on the tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They’re produced from the white flowers that have pink (already fertilized) highlights. Notice that each leaf has seven fat leaflets. The number and shape of the leaflets indicate this is a horsechestnut.

Horse chestnut flowers and leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

In winter horse chestnuts are easy to identify by their large, sticky end buds.

Hose chestnut twig and buds (photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University,

The yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) is native to the Appalachians and Ohio Valley and is North America’s tallest buckeye tree at 70 feet. Planted as an ornamental in Schenley Park it can hybridize with its shorter cousin, the Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), making identification difficult for non-botanists like me.

Yellow and Ohio buckeye nuts look a lot like horse chestnuts. Seeing the husk is a big help because yellow buckeye husks are smooth …

Yellow buckeye nuts in the husk (photo by Wendy VanDyk Evans,

… while Ohio buckeye husks are slightly spiny. The narrow leaves also indicate a native buckeye. (Yes, the leaves looked sick that year.)

Ohio buckeye fruits on the tree, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Their flowers are pale yellow (not white) and narrower than the horse chestnut’s. (*)

Yellow or Ohio buckeye flowers (I cannot tell which (*)) photo by Kate St. John

Yellow buckeye buds are large but not sticky. They’re one of the first to leaf out in the spring.

Yellow buckeye buds and leaf out at Schenley Park, 5 April 2022

Ohio buckeye buds are strongly keeled.

Ohio buckeye bud (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University,

For a summary of nine common buckeyes (Aesculus) used in landscaping see The Spruce: What is a Buckeye?

p.s. The small buckeye nut in the top photo is from the shrub-sized bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), planted in Schenley Park near Panther Hollow Lake. Click here to learn more.

(*) Which Flowers? I could not tell whether the flower photo was yellow or Ohio buckeye. Mary Ann Pike suggests Ohio buckeye in this comment.

Shagbark Hickory Nuts

Shagbark hickory fruit (husks), nuts and leaves in October (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 November 2023

The Nutty Series: Shagbark hickory

Last month shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) put on a show in Pittsburgh’s parks with bright yellow leaves and fallen nuts.

Shagbark hickory leaves in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The thick green husks began to turn brown immediately and peel off in quarter-moon sections. This piece of husk sat indoors for more than a month before I took a photo of its interior. The dark brown exterior is visible at the bottom edge.

Section of a shagbark hickory husk, Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

If a nut lasts through the winter its husk looks quite worn out by March. This one was probably uneaten for a good reason.

Shagbark hickory nut that overwintered, March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Shagbark nutshells are slightly oval with a remnant stem and four ribs. When I cracked open the nut I collected, it was a dud. Maybe an insect got to it. This Wikimedia photo of a sawed nut shows the meat.

Shagbark hickory nut, sawed open (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though shagbark hickory nuts taste good and can substitute for pecans, shagbarks are not cultivated because …

They are unsuitable to commercial or orchard production due to the long time it takes for a tree to produce sizable crops and unpredictable output from year to year. Shagbark hickories can grow to enormous sizes but are unreliable bearers.

C. ovata begins producing seeds at about 10 years of age, but large quantities are not produced until 40 years and will continue for at least 100. Nut production is erratic, with good crops every 3 to 5 years, in between which few or none appear and the entire crop may be lost to animal predation.

Wikipedia Shagbark Hickory account

Interestingly, shagbarks (Carya ovata) and pecans (Carya illinoensis) can hybridize in the wild though the hybrids usually don’t produce nuts.

Shagbark hickories are easy to identify by their shaggy bark. Just look up and you’ll see it peeling from the trunk. Young trees can fool you, though, because they have smooth bark (click here to see young bark).

Shagbark hickory tree, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Shagbarks are one of the first native trees to leaf out so their sap runs early in the spring. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) take advantage of this and drill the trees as they migrate north. The birds move sideways around the trunk as they drill in a ring around the tree. The trees heal the wounds by producing callus tissue that grows outward, almost like lips. These attract the the sapsuckers who then drill the same rings year after year.

Shagbark hickory with yellow-bellied sapsucker drill-rings, Schenley Park, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

(credits are in the captions)

Black Walnuts

Black walnut in shell, found in Frick Park, 19 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

22 November 2023

The Nutty Series: Black walnut

Black walnut trees (Julgans nigra) are common in the Pittsburgh area. Their nuts are always ready to eat in time for the holidays.

In September the fruit was still on the trees while we searched for fall warblers among the leaves.

Black walnut leaves and fruit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of October the fruit had fallen and started to look bruised. Eventually the husks turned black.

Black walnut in husk, 23 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

But most black walnuts aren’t abandoned that long. Squirrels gather them for winter food and eat a few along the way.

Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

Squirrels know that they have to open the shell on both sides to get all of the nut meat.

Black walnut shell opened by a squirrel (photos by Kate St. John)

The meat does not come out easily! It usually breaks into small pieces on the way out and is never the perfect shape of grocery store walnuts.

Black walnut shell and meat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The ones we buy in the grocery store that are grown in California are English walnuts (Juglans regia) which would not be possible without the life-giving participation of black walnut trees (Julgans nigra).

(English) Walnut pie (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Non-native English walnuts are susceptible to root diseases in California so walnut farmers plant native black walnut trees to start the orchard. When the black walnuts are a year old with strong roots and vigorous base they are chopped off and an English walnut shoot is grafted to the stump.

All the trees in the orchard below show the wider stump base (highlighted in yellow) that ends at the graft point. Above the graft English walnuts produce their own delicious nuts which are harvested after they fall by sweeping and vacuuming from the ground. FLORY harvesting equipment is pictured below.

Walnut orchard in California with FLORY sweeper machine (photo from Wikimedia Commons) The trunk and treetops are Juglans regia, the stump and roots are Juglans nigra
vacuuming up walnuts in the orchard, video from Midland Tractor on YouTube

Black walnut trees can be identified in winter as a bare tree standing alone with twigs that have alternate (not opposite) small buds above large leaf scars.

Black walnut trees tend to stand alone (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Black walnut buds and leaf scar, Schenley Park, 27 Feb 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Black walnut trees stand alone because …

Like other walnuts, the roots, inner bark, nut husks, and leaves [of Julgans nigra] contain a nontoxic chemical called hydrojuglone; when exposed to air or soil compounds it is oxidized into juglone that is biologically active and acts as a respiratory inhibitor to some plants. Juglone is poorly soluble in water and does not move far in the soil and will stay most concentrated in the soil directly beneath the tree.

Symptoms of juglone poisoning include foliar yellowing and wilting. A number of plants are particularly sensitive. Apples, tomatoes, pines, and birch are poisoned by juglone, and as a precaution, should not be planted in proximity to a black walnut.

quote from Wikipedia

(credits are in the captions)


Pignut with husk partly gone, Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

15 November 2023

The Nutty Series: Pignut hickory

Different species of hickory nuts look the same … but not quite. This one, partially in its husk, was a puzzle so I brought it home. Husks and shells together provide the clues so I had three nuts to work with in various stages of undress, plus a table of southwestern PA hickory husk and shell characteristics.

Pignuts in husk, shell with insect hole, partially in husk, Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Characteristics of Southwestern PA Hickory Husks and Shells
Common NameScientific name
Shagbark HickoryCarya ovataNearly round, 1.75", thick, green, splits to baseNut has 4 ribs
Mockernut hickoryCarya tomentosaOval to pear shaped, 1.75", green, husk is thinner than shagbark's, splits to baseNut is thick-shelled with 4 ribs
Pignut hickoryCarya glabraOval or slightly pear shaped, 1.5", thin husk green to tan, maturing to da
rk brown, usually splits only partway to base
Nut has no ribs
Bitternut hickoryCarya cordiformisVery thin rough husk with 4 wings, splits only to the middle as if it is peeling off the shellNut is round, small and thin-shelled with a pointed tip

The Verdict: The photo was taken after the nuts sat indoors for three weeks. The husk is still pear shaped but has turned brown and splits completely. Hmmm. The nut, however, has no ribs so I’d say this is a pignut.

Sliced open it would look like this. I lack the tools to make such a clean cut.

Pignut sliced open (photo by Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia,

Pignuts were too bitter for European settlers so they fed them to their pigs, hence the pignut name. However pignuts are prized by wildlife including chipmunks, squirrels, mice, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers and wild turkeys. If deer eat them they will soon disappear from the ground in Pittsburgh’s parks.

Pignut hickories (Carya glabra) range along the east coast (the original colonies) all the way to the Mississippi Valley and down to the Gulf of Mexico but don’t normally grow in northern Pennsylvania.

Pignut hickory range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

In winter they are best identified by their buds. As with all hickories, the end bud is larger than the side buds but on the pignut it is relatively small and the side buds are almost at right angles to the twig. This one is about to burst into spring leaves.

Pignut hickory buds (photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois,

Young trees have smooth bark. Mature ones have these ridges.

Mature bark on a pignut hickory (photo by Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia,

The tree’s compound leaves have 5-7 serrated leaflets …

Pignut on the hickory tree (photo by Franklin Bonner, USFS (ret.),

… which turn a beautiful golden color in the fall.

Pignut hickory in autumn (photo by T. Davis Snydor, The Ohio State University,

But now the trees are bare.

Bare pignut hickory (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University,

Bonus! Did you notice the clean hole in the center nut in my three-nut photo? It was probably made by a pecan weevil (Curculio caryae). The weevil drills a hole to lay its eggs inside developing hickory nuts, including pecans.

Pecan weevil drilling into a husk (photo by Jerry A Payne, USDA Agricultural Research,

How does she drill into the nuts? Check out this video of acorn weevils drilling and mating.

Read more about pignuts at the Glen Arboretum.

(credits are in the captions)

Bitternuts, Butternuts

Bitternut hickory nuts (photo by Kate St. John)

8 November 2023

The Nutty Series: Bitternut Hickory & Butternut

Though their names differ by only one letter bitternuts and butternuts are not the same at all.

Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) is one of the most common hickories in southwestern Pennsylvania and easy to identify by its slender sulfur-yellow buds.

Bitternut hickory buds, April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bitternuts are closely related to pecans and also share the hickory genus with shagbark hickories, pignuts and mockernuts. Unlike the pecan the bitternut tree is rarely cultivated.

The fruit is a very bitter nut, 2–3 cm (0.75 – 1.25 in) long with a green four-valved cover which splits off at maturity in the fall, and a hard, bony shell.

Wikipedia: Bitternut hickory

The “green four-valved cover” turns brown after the nut lies around for a while (see middle nut at top) and indeed the shell is hard and bony. I had to use a hammer to open this one and damaged the perfect nutmeat in the process. You’ll have to imagine it was shaped like a short squat pecan.

Bitternut hickory nut, opened (photo by Kate St . John)

I can tell you from taste-testing that the nut is bitter and astringent. Squirrels avoid these nuts though Wikipedia says that rabbits eat them.

Butternuts (Juglans cinerea), on the other hand, are prized because the nuts taste good.

Butternut in its soft furry husk, similar to a black walnut (photo by Kate St. John)

Butternuts are in the same genus as black walnuts and sometimes called “white walnuts.” The leaf arrangement is so similar that I didn’t realize that I was looking up at a butternut tree — to see warblers — until I saw the nuts on the ground.

Butternut bark and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Notice how similar the husks are: butternut on the left, black walnut on the right below. The butternut husk is oblong and fuzzy.

In the husk: Butternut (oblong and fuzzy) next to black walnut (rather smooth) – photos by Kate St.John

As the husk deteriorates (at left) the lumpy nutshell is revealed.

Butternut husk and nut at various stages (photos by Kate St. John)

A cross section of the nut shows the rough exterior and nutmeat inside.

Cross section of butternut with nutmeat inside (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The butternut’s natural range runs from Maine and southern Ontario to southeastern Missouri and is smaller than the bitternut hickory’s. While the bitternut thrives, the butternut is declining and listed as threatened in some U.S. states and endangered in Canada. Its biggest threat is a fatal disease, butternut canker, caused by a fungus imported with the Japanese walnut. Ironically butternuts are partly threatened by too-easy hybridization with Japanese walnut trees.

Like black walnuts, butternuts are shade intolerant and thrive only when they’re at the top of the canopy or in an open space. Now that I know what a butternut looks like, I’ll pay more attention.

(credits are in the captions)


American beech nuts, Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

1 November 2023

The Nutty Series: American beech

If you find a small spiny capsule on the forest floor that opens to reveal two to three nuts (in this case two are nicely packed together) you’ve found beechnuts. Without even looking up you can be sure you’re near an American beech (Fagus grandifolia).

American beech fruit capsule with nuts, Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The fruit [of Fagus grandifolia] is a triangle-shaped shell containing 2–3 nuts inside, but many of them do not fill in, especially on solitary trees. Beech nuts are sweet and nutritious, can be eaten raw by wildlife and humans, or can be cooked. They can also be roasted and ground into a coffee substitute.

Wikipedia account: American beech, Fagus grandifolia
American beech seed capsule with nuts inside, Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beechnuts can be eaten raw? Well, it’s complicated. Foraging Beech Nuts explains that it’s best to let the capsules dry out for 2-3 weeks and then cook the nuts because some people get throat irritation from the raw seed coating.

In Pittsburgh’s parks beechnuts can be hard to find because they are so popular with deer and squirrels. Looking for a beech without looking up? Here’s another clue.

Beech drops (Epifagus virginiana) are parasitic on beech tree roots so if you see these well camouflaged plants you are definitely near an American beech. Read about them at On The Beech.

Beech drops (photo by Scott Zona via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Looking up at American beech trees this month you’ll see brown beech leaves clinging to the branches.

American beech leaves, 15 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Its buds are distinctive: long, pointed and golden brown like its fall leaves.

American beech buds and autumn leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

The trunk has smooth gray bark.

Bark of American beech, Nov 2011 (photo by Kate St John)

And at the end of winter, small American beeches have pale, rattling leaves that make them stand out in the forest.

Forest with young beech tree in February (photo by Kate St. John)
Forest with young beech tree, February 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

All the beechnuts will be eaten or hidden by the end of winter.

p.s. If you’re my age you probably remember Beech-Nut chewing gum. Were there beech nuts in it? No, that was the name of the company. The gum’s claim to fame was its peppery peppermint zing.

Whatever happened to the candy? The candy division of Beech-Nut went defunct in 1976. Read about the Beech-Nut company here.

(photos by Kate St. John except for the beech drops photo by Scott Zona via Flickr Creative Commons license)

You Can Tell A Tree By Its Nuts

Red oak acorns on the branch, August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 October 2023

By late October leaves and nuts are underfoot and still falling. Red oak acorns that were green on the branch in August litter the footpaths and sidewalks now.

Red oak acorns on the ground, Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Underneath black walnut trees it’s hard not to misstep on the yellow husked nuts. You may even be hit by a black walnut detached and dropped by a squirrel gathering nuts above you. Squirrels save time by crawling all over the tree and detaching lots of nuts. Then they scurry down to collect them. Ouch!

Black walnuts in the husk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Keep looking down and you may find unusual nuts and seeds like these.

Magnolia cucumber tree lea and seeds, Sept 2011 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even without leaves, you can identify the trees above you by knowing the nuts at your feet. This fall I’ll run a series on identifying nuts found in western Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile to kick it off …

Adam Haritan explains a few trees you can identify without even looking up in this 15-minute Learn Your Land video.

video from Learn Your Land on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)