Field Guides

Nuts of Missouri

A complete guide to nuts of Missouri

Missouri contains six types of nuts: hazelnuts (Corylus avellana), chestnuts (Castanea species), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), hickory nuts (Carya species), pecans (Carya illinoinensis), and last but not least acorns (Quercus species). The black walnut is the most abundant of these in Missouri, and in fact Missouri is the world’s top producer of black walnuts and is responsible for 65% of the annual black walnut harvest in the United States.

What is a Nut?

A nut is “the dry fruit of some trees, consisting of an edible seed within a hard, outer shell, or the seed itself” as defined by Cambridge Dictionary. Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult, and when defining nuts – the same food generations upon generations of humans have used as both a means of survival or as a delicacy – complications quickly arise. The reason being is that not all nuts are what we deem “tree nuts.” Almonds, cashews, and pistachios are not part of the tree nut club as they are seeds rather than the actual fruiting body of a tree. Peanuts, the most ubiquitous American “nut,” is actually a legume. The coconut, which even contains the word nut in its name, is a drupe. The task of creating a universally satisfying definition for nuts is not an easy one, and some botanists simply choose to avoid using the word altogether. None of this is to say that people should re-evaluate the way we collectively define what is and is not a nut; on the contrary, the way people currently group nuts in a culinary sense is a good schema to have and to keep. Even though walnuts drop from trees and hazelnuts come from bushes, encompassing them and others in a broad definition of “nuts” is a helpful way of simplification, as they fundamentally share little difference when in our favorite protein or candy bar.

Nut Composition and Health Benefits:

A consistent and pesky idea regarding nuts is that they aren’t good for you. How could they be, some ask, if half of their calories come from fat? The truth is, that in addition to nuts being an almost ideal snack in that they are compact, transportable, and non-perishable, nuts are indeed a healthy food source and recommended by major health agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. Nuts contain all macronutrients – fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber – as well as important micronutrients such as Vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and folate (a B vitamin). As for nuts’ fat and carbs, they are both healthy in nuts and should raise little concern. Nuts have a very favorable lipid profile, containing mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Most of its carbs come from a strong fiber concentration, and nuts are second to only cereal as the most fibrous plant food, ahead of legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Nuts help lower the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, and certain types of cancer. Additionally, research suggests that those who eat the recommended amount of nuts per day – 1.5 ounces/42.5 grams – do not gain but in fact occasionally lose weight, as nuts’ high fiber content creates more satiety and helps with “weight maintenance.”

Nut History:

Nuts have been part of the human diet since the beginnings of our history. The first physical evidence of nut gathering dates as far back as 780,000 years ago, before the rise of homo sapiens. A site in Israel had traces of almonds, water chestnuts, pistachios, and acorns, all of which also needed to be cracked with at the very least some sort of blunt tool. It can be deduced that if hominids had the sophistication and means to collect nuts, it no doubt has been done by human beings ever since. It is also important to consider how long that nuts have been part of the human palate, as agricultural developments are only believed to have started as late as 12,000 years ago. While it is a stretch to conclude humans couldn’t have survived without nuts, we can say that nuts were for hundreds of thousands of years one of the only other things eaten by people in concert with meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and other plant matter.

Part of people’s fascination with nuts has been with regards to their shape. Often, people would compare nuts to the shape of one’s head. The word for head, or glans, directly translates to acorn in Latin. The walnut, for example, shares an almost uncanny resemblance to the human brain, with its two distinct lobes and wrinkles up and down its figure. The shape of an almond (a “mandorla”), on the other hand, is considered almost divine across religions. The mandorla (Italian: “almond”) in religious art, is an almond-shaped aureole of light surrounding the entire figure of a holy person. Buddhists thought it to be a holy shape and Christians considered it a figure of creation. When Jesus was painted within the confines of the shape it represents his bridging of the two worlds of creation and being. Pythagoreans also took extreme interest in the shape, believing that its geometric ratio, the shape when two circles overlap (think Venn Diagram), was a key to understanding the harmony of the universe.

Black Walnuts:

Missouri is home to the black walnut (Junglans nigra) and produces the most black walnuts in the world. The quintessential nut, walnuts have found use in cultures throughout history and are actually what the word nut refers to etymologically. The most common walnut is the Persian or English walnut (Junglans regia), favored due to its large kernel and thin shell, with the name in Latin meaning “Jupiter’s royal acorn.” Persians also reserved the nut for royalty and many years later the nut was introduced to greater Europe around the year 400. Walnuts contain a high amount of fat and in some folk traditions their oil was used as a healing remedy for coughs, stomach pain, and cancer, (however there is no link between walnuts and healing). Walnuts are an excellent source of healthy fats, as they contain mostly HDL fats and are high in omega 3. There are many studies linking a beneficial relationship between walnuts and coronary heart disease, and in 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seconded the claim that a daily serving (1.5 ounces) of walnuts each day may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

The black walnut is an easy to identify nut – it is covered in a sort of green globe, almost looking like a tennis ball, with a smooth and fleshy husk. When opening the nut, inside is the unmistakable, eponymous black and ink. The ink has been used throughout history as a dye and was common during the pioneer days. As the ink is strong and non-toxic, it can be easily created as a DIY ink by just crushing the husk of the nut and adding water to think out the black solution. As for dehusking the walnut itself, the task is not easy and is certainly made more difficult by all the non-removable ink in the way. You can go at the shell with a knife, stomp on them with your shoes, hit them with a blunt object (not too hard), or if you’re feeling particularly confident you could try opening them with just your bare hands. If nothing works immediately, don’t be too disappointed, after all, these were the same nuts the nutcracker was designed to crack.


Chestnut trees (Castanea spp.) are part of the beech family Fagaceae and its four main species groups are American, European, Chinese, and Japanese. The chestnut prefers a more temperate climate (typically warm summers and cold winters) and has been planted on all northern continents as well as Australia. While chestnuts are still relatively abundant due to commercial production, the days when chestnut trees lay rooted far and wide in the American landscape are a distant memory. What was once a prominent tree in the eastern United States was almost entirely wiped out by a blight at the beginning of the twentieth century. Most chestnuts now come by way of European or Chinese exports – these faux-American chestnuts, which lack the same taste quality as the originals, have almost entirely substituted the prior nut. So, if you happen to stumble upon a wild chestnut when roaming in the Missouri landscape, be sure to appreciate that what you have is a true rarity nowadays. The chestnut has been cultivated for over 3,000 years in the Mediterranean and possibly 6,000 years in China. Chestnuts may be consumed raw, but they are more commonly prepared by boiling or roasting. These nuts are harvested starting in September and ending in early November, however, once harvested many people wait an additional few weeks to let the nut’s starches transform into sugar to give it a sweeter and less bitter taste.


Hazelnut (Corylus Americana) is a deciduous tree belonging to the birch or Betulaceae family. Some confusion surrounds this nut, as it technically comes from a shrub. A hazelnut found in nature will almost certainly be a shrub, however cultivated hazelnuts often come from taller trees. The wind-pollinated shrub grows up to about 10 feet tall and about 5 to 10 feet wide. The nut is primarily found throughout the Midwest and the remaining eastern half of the US, and spreads north past Minnesota into Canada. Although Missouri is home to some hazelnuts, almost 99 percent of hazelnuts actually come from Oregon, where hazelnuts are grown commercially and come from trees up to 40 feet tall.

The hazelnut is a perennial plant and produces its fruiting body in clusters, with their outsides covered by a hard and smooth round shell about the size of an acorn that when opened yield a dark yellow kernel. As a monoecious plant, it contains both male and female flowers, with the male flowers being long, yellow catkins and the females as small red flowers. The shrubs are efficient, with each typically producing 20-25 pounds of hazelnuts per year. Hazelnuts contains a large amount of fat and have been considered one of the unhealthier nuts for some time. This, however, is a misnomer, as the hazelnut is full of healthy fats and is a good source of carbs, protein, bioactives, and antioxidants.

Among tree nuts, the hazelnut’s unique flavor and aroma have garnered significant attention, as its combination of free amino acids, sugars, organic acids, and tannins create a distinct taste. They may be consumed raw, but most prefer them roasted. Hazelnuts pervade different types of sweets and can be found just as they are in chocolate bars or as flavoring for crackers. Nutella® spread – a combination of hazelnut, cocoa powder, sugar, oil, and powder – is loved by many for its unique taste.

Hazelnuts have a rich history and over many years have developed a variety of names. Known as “filbert” across the pond, it is also referred to as a cob nut and sometimes as a pontic. The name filbert comes from St. Philibert Day, celebrated on the 22nd of August, about the same time hazelnuts begin to mature. Volbert, the German translation of “philbert,” means a full beard, referring to the fringed husks which cover the nuts. Hazelnuts have through the ages been used for their healing purposes, and according to many reliable voodoo doctors are imbued with special powers. While the science is still lacking on this front, that hasn’t stopped doctors and herbalists from using hazelnuts for the common cold, coughs, or even baldness.

Hickory Nuts:

A member of the walnut family (Juglandaceae), the hickory tree (Carya species) includes a total of 18 species, of which 12 are native to the United States and nine are found in Missouri. Those nine include the bitternut, red, black, shagbark, sand, water, mockernut, and shellbark hickories, as well as the pecan tree. The genus is split into either true hickories or pecan hickories, and the Missouri trees are organized as true hickory – pignut, shellbark, shagbark, sand, black and mockernut – or pecan hickories – bitternut, water, and of course pecan trees. All hickories are monoecious and are widespread around the eastern and central United States. Hickories are sometimes referred to as the “pioneer tree,” as they are more versatile than your average tree with nuts as well as a strong, durable wood that is great for building or tools.

Unfortunately, most hickory nuts aren’t sought after due to their very variable, hit-or-miss flavoring. The red hickory, for example, is also known as the pignut hickory, as its sometimes sweet but often sour nuts seem to only be fit for pigs. The bitternut earned its tried-and-true name as its bitterness makes it unpalatable to humans as well as most wildlife. Distasteful as it is, the bitternut is actually a prized hickory as its wood produces the best taste for smoking meats. Besides pecans, the only hickory nuts people really take the time to forage for tend to be from shagbark or red hickories. As a result of their lackluster taste, there is currently no commercial production of these nuts with the exception of pecans.

Brief details about each tree are below:

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

  • Bitternut are especially strong trees that sometimes grow past 100 feet
  • It has distinctive yellow buds that are present before the leaves later emerge
  • Their nuts, besides just being bitter, have four winged ribs that line the outside of the bony husk. When ripe, the nut will split open into four quarters, releasing the bitternut

Red hickory (C. glabra)

  • It is unusually located mostly in wet or moist sites, rather than in upland sites where deciduous trees are normally found
  • It has a gray bark that peels with age and a height that ranges from 60-80 feet
  • The nuts are round and pear-shaped and will brown with age

Black hickory (C. texana)

  • Is limited to the southern half of Missouri
  • The bark is gray and sometimes black and has a diamond-checkered formation
  • The fruit (nuts) are a reddish brown and like other hickories can be either sweet or bitter

Shagbark hickory (C. ovata)

  • Its extremely firm wood is often used to make tool handles, athletic equipment, and construction timbres
  • Shagbark hickory nuts also have a ribbed shape like the bitternut and mockernut. Their nutmeat is relished by squirrels in particular

Water hickory (C. aquatica)

  • As the name implies, water hickories are happiest near rivers or along waterbeds. As a result, they are found only in the southeastern corner of Missouri where the weather is more suitable
  • The tree is best identified by its nut husk, which is flattened, rough, and contains four distinct seams. Don’t try this nut as it is inedible and quite bitter

Sand hickory (C. pallid)

  • The tree is often found in upland and sandy sites along with pine trees
  • Sand hickory’s bark starts out brown but eventually weathers down to a dark gray and a smoother texture
  • The nut is fairly round and like other hickories is encased in a four-valved husk that opens when ripe

Shellbark hickory (C. laciniosa)

  • Like the shagbark, its bark peels back in plates, however shellbark trees tend to be shorter and with heavier branches
  • There are currently no serious diseases or enemies that hurt its development
  • The “huge nut hickory,” its nuts are the largest of all hickory nuts measuring at about five 5 centimeters long and 5 centimeters wide

Mockernut (C. tomentosa)

  • Its bark is hard and thin with crossing narrow ridges and furrows that create a net-like pattern
  • It is called a mockernut tree as the thick-shelled fruit only produces a small kernel of nutmeat


The pecan tree (C. illinoinesus) as many Americans already know, is not a fickle and unsatisfying nut like its fellow hickories. As the only tree nut native to the United States, the nut is beloved by many and has been a staple in the American diet before Americans were even here. The tree is believed to have first come from the Illinois area and native species run down a large swath of land from Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, and into Mexico. The word pecan comes from the Algonquin Indian word “pacaan,” which translates to “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.” Native Americans fancied pecans, and they were even a currency for certain tribes at one point as they were easy to crack, readily available, and tasted great. Pecans became so prevalent across the American landscape that it was common these trees would be chopped down for their harvest; people saw no harm in chopping one of so many trees, even though pecans would readily drop all their nuts during harvest season. A century ago, the tree began to be commercialized for its nut in the southeastern United States. Given the pecan’s proclivity for long life – many native trees are over 1,000 years of age – oftentimes the same trees that started on plantations 120 years ago harvest as well today as they did 50 years ago. Pecans can grow to over 200 feet, and to support a tree so large, its voluminous trunks range as wide as 11 feet. That is not typical however, as they normally only grow to be about 100 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

Pecans are found throughout the American diet, like in praline candy, pecan pie, and other snacks. These nuts are typically reserved for appetizers and small snacks however, as they have a high fat concentration (94% of their calories) and pack a punch with a calorie count close to butter. Full of phytochemicals substances, pecans are known to be powerful antioxidants and have more antioxidants than any other tree nut. They also contain more antioxidant flavonoids and natural plant sterols – both known for their cholesterol lowering abilities – than other nuts too. They are also full of Vitamin E, zinc, fiber and other minerals.


Acorns come from oak trees, those being in the genus Quercus of the beech family, Fagaceae. Acorns can be found from the following trees in Missouri:

  • Willow oak
  • Shingle oak
  • Dwarf chinquapin oak
  • Chinquapin oak
  • Swamp chestnut oak
  • Blackjack oak
  • Water oak
  • Pin oak
  • Nuttail oak
  • Post oak
  • Scarlet oak
  • Shumard oak
  • Swamp white oak
  • White oak
  • Black oak
  • Red oak
  • Southern red oak
  • Overcup oak
  • Bur oak

Regardless of what you may have heard acorns are not poisonous. If they were, mankind would be in big trouble, as they are one of our oldest companions. Oaks are the most populous tree around the world and every single one of them produces acorns. The United States is home to 60 different types of oaks and as compared to the amount of all nuts processed throughout America every year, the annual acorn crop totals that of all other nuts combined. Unfortunately for us humans, the majority of acorns require extensive processing to remove the bitter tannins within them, which can be done by pounding them and leaching them with water. While it can be a time-consuming task, people have been doing it since paleolithic times. Here in America, many Native Americans regularly ate acorns and those who lived in California entirely subsisted on acorns as food and as a result had no need for planting crops.

Oaks are generally divided into two groups: red and white oaks. Of the two, white oaks are typically the preferred species since nuts from red oaks have a higher concentration of tannin making them more bitter. To distinguish the two broad groups, check the outer lobes of the leaves on any oak tree. If they are pointed, they are probably leaves from a red oak, and if they are rounded they are most likely leaves from a white oak.


Tekiela, Stan. Trees of Missouri. Adventure Publications, Cambridge, Minnesota. 2006.

Edited by Cesarettin Alasalvar and Fereidoon Shahidi. Tree Nuts: Composition, Phytochemicals, and Health Effects. CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group. New York. 2008.

Ablala, Ken. Nuts: A Global History (Edible). Reaktion Books Ltd, London. 2014.

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