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Garden Variety: History in a nutshell

January 2, 2014

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I’m nuts about the holidays.

“Grandpa, will you open some pistachios for me and where do they come from?” Same answer; no and don’t know. Second grandson, “I know, I know! They all come from trees.” They were correct. All nuts come from trees. Sorta.

Nuts are a complicated issue. There are “true nuts” and “culinary nuts.” Botanically a “true nut” is indehiscent (not opening at maturity). There are only two true nuts that we are familiar with: chestnut and hazelnut or filbert. All the rest are simply seeds that happen to have a hard shell.

The tree comment was correct with an exception the common peanut. The peanut, the most common of all the culinary nuts, is a legume, also a seed, of the Fabaceae family, like a bean.

References to pistachios date back to 6,000 B.C. and are even mentioned in the Bible. The shells and fruit are sometimes dyed red or green.

References to pistachios date back to 6,000 B.C. and are even mentioned in the Bible. The shells and fruit are sometimes dyed red or green.

These underground delights are also known as earthnuts, ground nuts, goober peas, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts and pig nuts. They are just called peanuts because ice cream covered with goobers would not sell well.

The seeds and nuts we eat do have nutritional value. Research as to the reason varies, but the conclusion is the same. Opposing this, these tempting morsels are among the most common of food allergies.

Nuts are also made into spices. Nutmeg, being common, is a tree with edible seeds important for two spices: nutmeg and mace (not the spray). Common in India and the Caribbean, the world demand is some 10,000 tons each year.

The chestnut popularized by “open fire” is a true nut and is opened by the “roasting” to expose the edible seed. They are also candied, steamed, grilled and boiled. Hazelnuts, also a true nut, are used in confectionery for strongly flavored cooking oils, praline, chocolate truffles, and products such as Nutella and Frangelico liqueur.

So back to the old pistachio. Reference dates back to 6,000 B.C. with a singular mention in the Bible. The fruit and shell are beige but consumers expect them to be dyed red or green. Pistachios are of the Anacardiaceae family, as are cashews, mango, poison ivy and sumac. With that heritage, I may just give the whole bag of seeds to the grandkids.

— Stan Ring is the Horticulture Program Assistant for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Extension Master Gardeners can help with your gardening questions at 843-7058 or mastergardener@douglas-county.com.

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