Garden Variety: Adding native nut trees to your yard

Hickories, oaks, walnuts and other nut-bearing trees are dropping their season’s produce now as fall arrives in northeast Kansas. These nuts are an important food source for deer, turkeys, squirrels and other wildlife in rural and urban settings. A few species are good for humans to eat, as well.

If space allows, consider adding native nut-bearing trees to your yard. Or, enjoy them in nature and try identifying the ones you find.

When adding nut trees to your yard, make sure you select an appropriate species for your space. Large yards can handle large oaks, hickories and walnut trees. For small yards, consider American hazelnut or dwarf chinkapin oak. Steer clear of sidewalks and driveways where falling nuts create a mess and a walking hazard.

If you want to grow Kansas-native nuts for your own consumption, American hazelnut (Corylus americana), black walnut (Juglans nigra), and pecan (Carya illinoinensis) are the best options.

American hazelnut is a large shrub rather than a tree, growing 8 to 10 feet tall. The nuts are encased in a green, leafy structure that provides camouflage. Harvest when the nuts are brown but the leafy structure is still green. After harvest, allow the nuts to dry for a few days before peeling the leafy material. The shells are easily cracked to remove the nuts. Native hazelnuts look and taste similar to hazelnuts sold in stores.

Black walnut is a large tree that is also prized for its wood. Nuts are encased in shells and messy hulls that turn from bright green to dark brown or black as they dry. The hulls contain a sticky black substance that stains hands and almost any surface it comes in contact with. Let the hulls dry as much as possible before picking up the round, black shells that contain the nuts. Cracking the shells is a challenge, too — use specialized nutcrackers or a bench vise. Black walnuts have a strong, unique flavor.

Pecan is also a large tree that is more common in southeast Kansas than northeast. The fruits are encased in bright green hulls, but the hulls dry and split open as the nuts ripen. Pecan nuts in the shell drop to the ground when ready, making them easy to harvest. The only challenge is beating squirrels and other wildlife to them. The shells are easy to crack. Native pecans tend to have thinner shells than the varieties commonly sold in stores but are otherwise similar.

Acorns and hickory nuts can be eaten by humans but must be processed to removed tannins. Research specific varieties that are more suited to human consumption if you’re interested in growing these crops. They are excellent sources of food for wildlife, and there are many native options of each.

Native Kansas oaks are black (Quercus velutina), blackjack (Q. marilandica), bur (Q. macrocarpa), chinkapin (Q. muehlenbergii), dwarf chinkapin (Q. prinoides), northern red (Q. rubra), pin (Q. palustris), post (Q. stellata), shingle (Q. imbricaria), shumard (Q. shumardii), swamp white (Q. bicolor) and white (Q. alba).

Native Kansas hickories are bitternut (Carya cordiformis), black or pignut (C. texana), mockernut (C. tomentosa), shagbark (C. ovata) and shellbark (C. laciniosa).

Another native species that might come to mind is buckeye (Aesculus glabra). Also known as Ohio buckeye or western buckeye, this species produces a large nut-like seed. Superstition says that buckeyes are good luck. Buckeyes have a mild toxin and must be processed in a certain way to be fit for human consumption. The seeds are also eaten by squirrels.

Although buckeye trees are relatively small, they are generally not recommended for small yards because they tend to be messy throughout the year, dropping branches and leaves. They are also prone to leaf scorch in hot weather.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.

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