"And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds"
What are they? Botanically, they are single-seeded, dry fruit that comes packed in a shell. When we talk about legumes as "peanuts"...and about seeds as "coconuts" and as "pine nuts" and as "Brazil nuts," we're speaking loosely. We're even speaking loosely when we include walnuts and almonds, since botanists exclude their fleshy, succulent fruit layer from true definition of "one-seeded fruits with a tough DRY fruit layer" (that is, only trees of the Fagale order--that produce acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, and sweet chestnuts).
What's amazing about all these "nuts," though, is their great antiquity. Walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, acorns, and pine nuts ALL began life in both the Old World and the New World--for the simple reason that they proliferated on earth before the continents split apart, some 60 million years ago, to line up in different hemispheres.
Almonds (Prunus dulcis of the Rosacea family):This beautiful tree--related to the peach, apricot, and plum--is said to have originated in the deserts of southwest Asia--then spread into Greece and Italy, where it was cultivated from at least 200 BCE on. Cato himself brought the almond from Greece into Italy. From here, cultivation spread to north Africa, Spain, Portugal, and France. In fact, in 812 AD Charlemagne ordered almond trees to be planted in his imperial orchards. Medieval Europe loved them fresh and green for their "milk"--which people used instead of cow's milk to get around holy strictures on Christian fasting days.
Almonds were not cultivated in North America until quite late in world history. Spanish Franciscan priests tried to plant them from seed without success in 1769. Finally, nearly 100 years later, the trees took root in north central California.
Most almonds are used in their dried form--often toasted. But they are marvelous just beaten off the tree and eaten fresh, split out of their fuzzy green husks.
Interesting how different cultures interpreted the trees habit of flowering before leafing. Biblical Hebrews thus regarded the almond as a symbol of haste because of its sudden blossoming. Thophrastus in Ancient Greece was content to record the phenomenon. Moslems associated saw these almond blossoms as a symbol of hope bursting out. Modern Czechs, Italians, and Greeks see them as good luck and long life--and give out the nuts at weddings.
So far as use, Pliny, Plutarch, and later the English Gerard believed that almonds were a viable cure for drunkeness.
Brazil Nuts (Bertholletia excelsa):Native to the Amazon, this tree resists cultivation elsewhere--and even in Brazil wild trees fare far better than the few commercial plantations of domesticated ones. Brazil nut pods are gathered only after they fall to the ground. Why? Because each weighs about 5 pounds a piece! Harvesters run around gathering them while bearing shields over their heads. Stop laughing...it isn't funny!
Cashews (Anacardium occidentale):Native to the Amazon region, this tree is related to poison ivy--and, indeed, its shell contains a poison that can blister skin. When it is In fruit, the cashew depends from a fleshy red or yellow "false fruit," called the cashew apple. This last is adored by many--who may well throw away the nut in its favor--and can be eaten raw, made into a preserve, or fermented into an alcoholic drink.
The Portuguese carried the cashew tree to India in the 16th century and successfully transplanted it there and in East Africa. Other edible cashew nuts varieties include Anacardium humile (the Monkey nut), A. namum, and A rhinocarpus (the Wild cashew)
Chestnuts (Castania fagaceae):Part of the human diet for at least 6,000 years, European ("sweet") chestnuts were beloved by Romans, who distributed them far and wide, even into England and Germany. In fact, it was Goethe, author of Faust, who declared in his Prose Maxims, "Let us be many-sided! Turnips are good, but they are best mixed with chestnuts. And these two noble products of the earth grow far apart."
This European species was introduced to America by the French aristocratic family of Dupon Nemours, who emigrated to the East Coast before the French Revolution. It was this species that Thomas Jefferson ultimately grafted onto Virginia root stock.
It is precisely because the chestnut, in its great antiquity, is native to Mediterranean Europe, America, and Central Asia/China that there is some hope for American chestnuts recovering from the chestnut blight that struck them early in the 20th century--and that virtually decimated the native population.
Native Americans on the Eastern seaboard relished the American chestnut--consider the Iroquois myth "Hodadenon and the Chestnut Tree," where a small boy foolishly destroys his uncle's last supply of dried chestnuts, ensuring the uncle's death unless he can release the spell cast on the only existing chestnut grove by 7 evil witches. Hodadenon breaks the spell over the grove's enslaved guardians--panthers, bears, and rattlesnakes--and suddenly the dead rise to life and the earth is fruitful once more. He declares chestnuts sacred...and to be shared with everyone forever.
Hazelnuts, or Filberts (Corylus family):Hazelnuts are also known as filberts because in Europe folklore they are ready for harvest on August 22nd, St. Philbert's Day. But they were known in China some 5000 years ago...and they were gathered by the Romans. Pliny, in fact, claims they orginated in DamascusThey are called "cobnuts" or "hazels" in the United States. Today, however, Turkey is the largest producer of these nuts.
Hazel shrubs produce flowers before the leaves--the male in catkins; the female, inconspicuous; both on the same tree. Thus accounting perhaps for Virginia Woolf's description of Osbert (brother of Edith) Sitwell's poems: "All foliage and no filberts."
American hazels (Corylus americana) are often gathered, but rarely cultivated and sold. The big exception occurs in Oregon--but not with the American nut. Legend has it that Frenchman David Gernot arrived in Oregon in the 17th century with European hazel trees and a personal mission. When he stumbled into the beautiful Willamette Valley, he was reminded of his home in the Loire valley. Without hesitation, he staked out his home and planted the first of his 50-tree grove. Other planters followed and by the early 1900s, hazelnut orchards had taken root in Oregon, where their nuts are produced commercially to this day. This memoir was recently given shape to me when, while biking along the Loire, I stopped to see a potter I had just met--and found her out gathering a bountiful harvest of hazels from the trees that lined her property.
Macadamia nuts (Macadamia intergricolia):This nut, borne on an evergreen tree, is Australia's major contribution to the world's food supply. Also known as the Queensland nut, it got its name from a Scots chemist, John Macadam, in 1858. It was introduced Sri Lanka in 1868--and to the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1890s, where it continues to be produced there as a cash crop.
Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea):First of all, yes, it's a bean, not a nut--but it acts like a nut, is called a nut, and is used like a nuts...so here it is on the nut page. Native to the New World in tropical South America, they have been found in Peruvian settlements that date back to 800 BCE. Explorers brought peanuts to Europe in the 16th century, where they remained curiosities until the 19th. But the Portuguese also spread them to East Africa--and the Spanish to the Philippines--where they were welcomed. How did they get to North America? Via Africa and the slave trade.
It's an odd growing plant--a pea plant that undergoes pollination of its yellow flower, then, as the stalk lengthens, pushes the woody pod into the ground, where it matures underground. Today's biggest producers are Indian and China--the largest exporter, Nigeria.
Pecan nuts...and hickory nuts (Carya species from the order Juglandaceae):These natives of North America (and member of the Walnut family) have long been enjoyed by Native Americans, but none so much as the pecan (Carya illinoensis)--especially the "papershells" with their succulent nuts and ease in cultivation.
Teddy Roosevelt, in 1885, wrote of one of his hunting trips through west Texas:
Of course pecan trees don't produce at all until after 6 years--and don't produce fully until they're pushing 20. Pecans were introduced to England in 1629, and now they are grown as a crop in Australia. Generally speaking, the rest of the hickories aren't cultivated, though their nuts can be quite good.
Pine nuts (Pinus family):This delicious seed is another "nut" that has always had feet in both the Old World and the New World. Piñon (P. edulis et al.) thrives in North America and Mexico, where it was and remains an important food source for Native Americans. Pignoli (P. pinea), on the other hand, thrives in Italy and southern Europe as a food crop and a delicious part of Italian cuisine. The seed itself is almost entirely endosperm--wonderfully delicate and rich.
Pistachios (Pistacia vera):Accounts vary as to the origin of this decidous tree. Some say it's a native of Central Asia and has been cultivated for at least 3000 years--others say the Levant, somewhere around Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine. Most agree that when Jacob sends his sons to Egypt with gifts of "a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds" (Genesis 43:11) it is pistachio nuts that he's talking about. And the name pistachio derives from a Persian word.
Beyond that, It is said that pistachios were brought to Rome by Vitellius and were cultivated there. They were not introduced to England, however, until the 16th and 17th centuries...and never really took. But when the U.S. Patent Office distributed pistachio seeds to California in 1854 , the trees fell in love with the place.
Oddly, the nuts did not become popular in the U.S. until they were made an item in the newfangled vending machines that were introduced in the 30s. Yet today crops from California rival the output of the the Mediterranean and Turkey. The tree grows to some 20-30 feet high; staminate and pistillate flowers are born on separate trees.
Walnuts (Juglans juglandaceae)Walnuts have been around for a long, long time. Thanks to shells found in the Swiss lake dwellings of neolithic man, dating back to about 7000 BC, we know that they have been used as food since prehistoric times. And they are native to Asia, Europe, and North America--having predated the separation of continents 60 million years ago.
There are 17 recognized species--all edible. "Persians" (Juglans regia) are considered the most tasty. They are supposed to have originated in southeast Europe and warm parts of Asia. They've been found growing around ancient Baalbek and over the walls of Constantinople.
Walnuts soon spread to Greece, where they were called caryon or head, because Greeks saw the shell as a human skull and the nut as human brains. Accordinly, it was thought that walnuts cured headaches. That old "association" thing, I guess.
Thence they traveled to Rome, where they were known as Royal Nut and as Nut of Jupiter. Juglans, in fact, is a contraction of "Jove's acorn" or Jovis glansPliny said, "chewing a nut fasting is a sovereign remedy against a rabid dog." Walnuts were also thought to be good for decayed teeth or, when taken with figs, for digestion.
Romans took the walnut to France, where the French used its oil for cooking and for thickening sauces. It didn't reach England until the 16th century. At that point, they were called WALnuts, from "wal" meaning "foreign." And the English took Persian walnuts to New England and called them "English nuts" to distinguish them from the native so-called "Black walnuts" (Juglans nigra). The butternut (Juglans cinerea) is also a delicious edible native walnut. Franciscan monks planted the Persian nut in California in the 18th century, while founding Spanish missions there.