To celebrate National Nut Day the Head of Kew's Arboretum, Tony Kirkham, tells us a little more about what nuts are, where you can find them, and their uses.
Autumn is one of my favourite times of the year in the Arboretum - the weather is turning cold with some moisture in the air and on the ground - the days are growing shorter, but when the sun is out the temperatures can be very warm and comfortable. All this makes for good autumn colour, but the highlight of this season is the fruit on the trees and, in particular, on the nut-bearing trees: the walnuts (Juglans), sweet chestnuts (Castanea), hazel nuts (Corylus), hickories or pecans (Carya) and the almonds (Prunus).
Juglans nigra fruits (Photo: Tony Kirkham)
The Christmas nut bowl
So what is a nut? The true botanical definition is “a simple dry fruit which is made up of a single seed, rarely two, inside a hard, woody shell that does not split on maturity to release the seed”. The culinary definition is a “dry seed with a high fat content. Many nuts referred to in the kitchen are not botanically true nuts, but any large oily kernels found within a shell are commonly called nuts."
If you stroll round the Arboretum at Kew at this time of year, you'll see many of the nuts we're used to from the nut bowl at Christmas.
One of the commonest nuts found in Europe and the British Isles comes from the common hazel, Corylus avellana, often grown as a coppice under-storey in our woodland and cultivated for the nuts in orchards. The fruits are produced in clusters of three to five and well camouflaged by the short leafy husk which covers about half of the nut.
Possibly the most popular of the Christmas bowl nuts is the English walnut, Juglans regia. The nut is covered in a green, semi-fleshy husk which, if crushed, gives off a dark stain. The squirrels usually beat you to the harvest.
The sweet chestnut Castanea sativa is one of the oldest trees at Kew at almost 400 years old. It cannot be mistaken at this time of the year because of the unusual spiky sheath that covers the nut.
Castanea sativa fruit (Photo: Tony Kirkham)
The sweet chestnuts are often roasted dry over an open fire and traditionally are sold by vendors in city streets.
Sweet chestnuts (Photo: Tony Kirkham)
My favourite pudding is pecan pie with ice cream and Sally, my wife, cooks an amazing pie from an old traditional US recipe. The pecan nut is the fruit of Carya illinonensis, one of the hickories, native to south-central North America and often grown for its timber value and autumn leaf colour. However, the nuts have a rich buttery flavour and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Pecan nuts (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The nut that tends to get left till last in the nut bowl is probably the almond. This is usually because it’s the hardest shell to crack. The almond is the fruit of Prunus amygdalus, native to the Middle East and South Asia and the seed is not a true nut, but a seed in the hard shell of a drupe. In the British Isles, the tree is better known for its attractive, delicate white to pink flowers before the leaves appear.
- Tony -
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Week by week horticulturalists, botanists and attractions organisers from all around Kew Gardens wrote for this special IncrEdibles blog, describing behind-the-scenes experiences and sharing insights into the amazing world of edible plants.
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