Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Nut Trees

Almost what coconuts are to the tropics, Chestnuts used to be to the United States east of the Mississippi - an abundant, never-failing sweetmeat growing wild throughout the land. Their verdant, prickly burrs in clusters of three would ripen to gold in autumn, and the first frosts would split them open to spill out plump brown kernels, two and four to a burr. Chestnut timber, close-grained and durable, was valued highly in building and for fenceposts. About fifty years ago a virulent, fungoid bark disease called Endothia parasitica swept through the chestnut stands. Remaining today of this once great species are only isolated survivors and, here and there, stubborn offshoots of the old rootstocks which struggle into bearing and then die off again, blighted by endothia, for which no control has been found.

Preserving the American chestnut by nursing along its few blight-resistant remnants and creating hardy hybrids on exotic rootstocks is a continuing crusade among U.S. arborists. The introduction of European and Oriental substitutes has also been undertaken, with more success. New home owners hankering for a nut crop in their grounds will not go wrong in planting young Chinese chestnuts, of which most varieties will yield in their sixth or seventh year. The nuts are slightly larger and less flavorful than our old Americans were, but they improve on the huge, mealy, somewhat cloying Italian and Spanish types that people use for turkey stuffing.

The second most satisfying American nut was and remains the black walnut, but not every one has the fortitude to crush off its juicy rind, which stains indelibly, and then crack and pick the convoluted meat out of the rough, iron-hard shell. Walnut fanciers are better off buying young English (actually Persian) walnut stock and cultivating it to fruition in eight or ten years. The rinds are less troublesome, the shells papery in comparison with wild walnuts, and the fat meats easier to extricate. A close and prolific wild cousin of the black walnut is the butternut, but finding this species in your new grounds is no cause for excitement. The nuts are inferior, the trees short-lived softies and slow to bear. The hickories are a third walnut relative, deliciously flavorful. Their rinds split off handily in sections, but the meat in their dense, tight shells is almost impossible to pick out whole. The shagbark fruit is bigger than the smoothbark, which is deprecated as pignut. As shade trees, native hickories deserve ground-space for their rugged symmetry, but they are not worth buying or cultivating. Only squirrels, and epicures of utmost patience, truly enjoy hickory nuts.

Pecans are one more member of the walnut family, indigenous from lower Indiana to Mexico. In Texas they grow as forests. Pecans have been extensively refined and cultivated throughout the South, where they are an important money crop. Long-lived and vigorous, pecans want rich soil and lots of growing room - sixty feet between trees.

Hazelnuts (Filberts) grow on a bush or small tree, akin to the birches. Unsuccessful commercially except on the northern Pacific Coast, hazel is hardy and fruitful enough to be a desirable addition to private collections anywhere. The nuts, which have a faintly aromatic taste like no other, crack neatly and store well.

Almonds are of two kinds, flowering and nut-bearing. They belong to the plum tribe, and the flowering types are hardy as far north as Massachusetts. Nut-bearing almonds do well in California but scarcely anywhere else in the United States.

Coconut palms are limited on the north by the latitudes of Charleston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, parallels 330 and 340. They need rainfall or irrigation of more than three feet per annum to round out and fill with "milk" their familiar fibered fruits, big as the head of a chimpanzee after you chop off the three-sided husk. Coconuts are a unique species and hence, necessarily, entirely self-fruitful. No other nut is dependably so, and two or more varieties of each should be planted together to ensure pollination. Nut trees are subject to the same types of parasites as cherries and plums and should be similarly sprayed. Chewing insects do not attack the nuts proper, but by defoliating the trees they rob the nuts of nourishment and stunt the meats. Walnuts are susceptible to several leaf spots but to none that cannot be controlled easily with fungicides. The pruning of nut trees is about the same as for cherries and, similarly, you need not thin off their crops.