Fall Foraging for Chestnuts

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This column, That Nature Show, is about the nature right under your nose: in our backyards, playgrounds and parks! Stop and look around, you’ll be amazed at what surrounds you. 

Everyone’s going apple picking. Sure, you could do that (here is a list of Maryland pick-yer-own), but you’re not everyone. You like difficult things.  You are a Baltimore County forager. This isn’t trendy farm-to-table eating, this is backyard-to-pie-hole Paleo.

“Foragers, who use the outdoors as an all-you-can-eat buffet, say their ranks are growing,” says  this piece in USA Today. There’s even a Meetup for people like us. Yes, certainly, I am a member.

For fall foraging I fill my bag with chestnuts. They go so well with Pumpkin Spice Lattes.  How I wish there was a Chestnut Spice Latte. Aha! I’ll invent it! And from my vast chestnut earnings I’ll send the kids to college!  

All you need for fall foraging chestnuts are a bag and sturdy garden gloves — the outer shell (or husk) is a well-defended doozie of thorniness — and chestnut trees. That’s critical. I like to roast chestnuts like the song “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire,” using  this recipe, and to make a Nutella-ish sweet puree out of them, using this recipe.

Chestnut trees were once the little black dress of Eastern American rural economy. The nuts were edible and nutritious; people fattened their livestock on them and made flour from them. Their trunks were straight and tall, great for timber, used to make everything lumber-related from roofing shingles to railroad ties. Often the trees were more than 80 feet high.  They could live to be 600 years old. They were the dominant species in upland Appalachian forests.

Then, in the 1920s, the chestnut trees started suffering from a blight, a fungus introduced accidentally from Asia. And the population of these mighty and important trees tanked.

But chestnuts are making a comeback in the American canopy.  I see stands of them roadside. And I’ve made that sweet chestnut puree from the chestnuts I’ve gathered on campus with the kids, all of us in canvas gardening gloves, surveying the ground, as focused as the animals who love them as much as we do, the deer, turkeys, and groundhogs.

 

 



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