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My thoughts and Commentary on Plants and Herbs

imageNut Pickin’

The cooler autumn air brings with it a change in leaf color accompanied by nuts maturing and dropping to the ground. Most nuts are sweet, high in protein, and can be used as a substitute for meat in the diet. They are also rich in unsat- urated fats that give them a high caloric value but no cholesterol.

True nuts are characterized by a single seed, a hard shell, and a protective husk that can take different shapes. Common nuts in the eastern U.S. include hazelnuts, beechnuts, walnuts, hickory, and chestnuts. Hazelnuts have a leafy outer husk while chestnuts have needle-sharp spines surrounding the shell.

Acorns have a cap and a beechnut has a triangular husk with weak spines. The

outer husk of a black walnut looks like a smooth, green ball whereas the hickory nut is ribbed. The ribs split open when the hickory nut matures to release the shell. Walnuts drop to the ground with the outer husk intact.

Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra)

Nuts have been referred to as “brain food” due to their serotonin content. According to Jim Duke, the black walnut, which looks like a brain, is the best source of serotonin. This is befitting of the “Doctrine of Signatures” which is based on “like cures like” and that the shape or color of a plant indicates its use. In this case, the brain-shaped nut is the best source of brain food.

Black walnuts are found in the eastern half of the United States except for the northern border. They are large trees with compound leaves consisting of 7-19 toothed leaflets that turn yellow in autumn. The fruit is a thick-shelled nut with ridges enclosed in a green husk that does not split open at maturity.

Walnuts begin dropping to the ground in mid-September and should be gathered soon after falling. If they remain on the ground for more than a few days, they become infested with maggots and turn black. The green outer hull can be tinctured and used to treat parasites and ringworm.

Removing the husk without getting stained can be tricky. Wearing gloves is a must unless you don’t mind sporting around hands stained yellow-brown for several weeks. This stain can be used as a dye or to stain wood.

The easiest way to remove the husks is to place the walnuts in the driveway and run over them in your car. Break away the hulls and rinse the nuts in a bucket of water, removing any that float. Spread in a single layer on mats to dry. Once dry, they can be stored in a cool, dry place until needed.

The shells of black walnuts are thick and hard with deep ridges. The best way to remove the nutmeat is with a hammer or a hard rock and a concrete block. Position the walnut on its side and give it a good firm whack. You may have to practice a bit to develop the right technique for removing the nutmeat in large pieces.

A pound of walnuts will yield about a cup of shelled nutmeats. Place the nutmeats in a food chopper or blender for use in cookies or cakes. Due to their high caloric value and the strong flavor, they should be used in small quantities.


USDA Forest Service. Retrieved from


imageNut-Berry Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup butter

1 cup flour

1 cup organic cane sugar

2 cups rolled oats

1 tsp vanilla

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

2 eggs

1/2 cup wild blueberries

Cream together butter and cane sugar until fluffy. Stir in vanilla and add eggs, beating after adding.

Add flour, stir in oats, nuts, and blueberries.

Drop by teaspoonfuls on greased baking sheet and bake at 350 for 10- 15 minutes.

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Sumac – Rhus copallinum, R. glabra, R. typhina

Sumac Family – Anacardiaceae

Description and Habitat:

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)Sumac is a deciduous shrub that grows on the sides of roads, interstates, fields, anyplace where there is an opening of light or disturbed soil. It sends out horizontal underground stems that sprout and form colonies. Although it is a native, it can sometimes be invasive, especially in a yard or garden.

Sumacs can be divided into two groups: poison sumac and non-poison sumac. The poison sumac (Toxidendron vernix) has white berries that hang in loose clusters while the non-poison sumac (Rhus spp.) has red, tightly clustered berries. The poison sumac, which fortunately is a lot less common than the others, can cause a contact dermatitis reaction, similar to poison ivy, in some people. Large, compound leaves that turn flaming red in the fall, are characteristic of both groups.

Botanical Uses

Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum)All species that bear red fruits can be used to make a tart, lemonade-like beverage. Fruits are covered with bright red hairs that are tart with malic acid. They also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tannic acid. They can be dried and ground into a reddish powder by placing them in a blender or coffee grinder. Strain out the seed and keep the powder. The dried berries are a traditional Middle Eastern seasoning used primarily on chicken and fish. The powder can also be used to add a tart flavor to any recipe.

The secret to a good tasting sumac drink, or sumac ade as some call it, is in the fruit. Quality fruits produce quality results. With sumac, it’s watching for the right moment, when the fruits turn glowing, bright red, ideally, before a rain. After a few days, they will lose that glow and start dulling in color. Breaking open a cluster will reveal hundreds of tiny insect eggs around the stems, maybe even a few caterpillars. It’s best to get the fruits before they reach this stage. When ripe, the end branches snap off easily.

Sumac ade can be made by infusing the berries in either hot or cold water. A cold water infusion has a fruitier taste but has to steep for a longer period of time. It has a lemonade-like flavor and is a refreshing drink to have on a hot, summer afternoon. The juice can also be used to make jelly, pies or as a substitute for lemon juice.

Traditional Uses

Sumac was known and used by the American Indians before the settlers arrived. Roots, bark, leaves and berries were all used by various tribes for a multitude of purposes. Berries were soaked in water to make a beverage, and the dried berries were ground into flour for a mush or to add to soup. Among the Delaware, sumac was mixed with tobacco and smoked. The Iroquois peeled the young shoots and ate them raw. Among the Potawatomi, the leaves were steeped to make a tea that was used as a gargle for sore throats. Berries were also used by other tribes to make a tea for sore throats and colds (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).

Sumac is also a source for dyes. Black, brown, green and yellow can be obtained from the roots, leaves, bark and berries. Ink was made from the bark and berries.

Wildlife Uses

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)The fruits of sumac remain on the plants well into the winter, offering a source of food for wildlife when other foods are scarce. Several gamebirds rely on sumac as a winter food source as do some of the songbirds which winter in the north. Dense thickets provide cover for small mammals, deer, and birds. Deer and rabbits browse on the bark and twigs.


Erichsen-Brown, C. (1979). Medicinal and other uses of North American plants. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foster, S. and Duke, J. A. (2000). Medicinal plants and herbs of eastern and central North America. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Martin, A.m Zim, H. S., Nelson, A. L. (1951). American wildlife and plants: A guide to wildlife food habits. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

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