On a spring walk in the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest here in Heath we admired a tall beech tree (Fagus grandiflora) that is also known as the bear tree. The trunk is scarred with bear claw damage, climbing up into the foliage with its nuts, and going down again. Beechnuts are an important food for bears and other wildlife. They are high in fat, carbohydrates and protein. It is easy to imagine bears preparing for their winter hibernation by loading up on these small nutritious nuts.
We have many beech trees here at the end of the road, tall old trees on the Lane, a remnant of the old road to Rowe, and in a younger grove by the henhouse. I have always been quite fascinated by beech trees because of the way they hold on to their dying, brown foliage in the fall. This habit is called marcescence. Even as the old leaf is dying a stiff, pointy bud forms at its base, eventually pushing off the old leaf.
A couple of years ago I spoke to Dr. John O’Keefe who had recently retired from his work at the Harvard Forest in Petersham. He explained that my young grove was probably caused by root suckers. A few years ago many beeches were afflicted by beech bark disease. The damage and stress to the trees caused them to send up these root suckers.
Dr. O’Keefe also said there was some thought that there were more new beech groves around because of the rise in wild turkey populations. They helped move the beechnuts around.
Thinking of that bear tree, my husband Henry and I went out to see if our beech trees had any nuts. We managed to pull down a branch on one of the old beeches, and there, held above the foliage, was a pair of soft spined husks that contained a small three sided nut. One of the husks had opened so I thought the nut must be ripe. It was not difficult to remove from the husk or its brown skin. It had a very bland taste. I’m not sure if that indicated it was not fully ripe. I had read they had a bitter taste. It would take a lot of these very small nuts to make much of an addition to a meal.
Later in the spring we were led through our own woodland by Stu Watson from the Audubon Society. He taught us that nuts are known as mast. Nuts are hard mast, an important food source for wildlife during the fall and winter. In our area this includes acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts as well as beechnuts. Fruits like apples, grapes, blackberries, cherries and others are soft mast and very important for birds migrating in the fall.
Before our walk with Watson I had never thought about providing food for wildlife other than birds. I certainly had been thinking only of myself, not wildlife, when I planted seven hazelnut bushes on a new bank formed by the work on our house foundation. In fact, I was quite distressed to learn, a year after planting, that hazelnuts are deer candy.
After locating our beechnuts, Henry and I then went to investigate the shrubby hazelnut planting. While beechnuts are held above the foliage, hazelnuts (Corylus Americana or American filbert) are held below the foliage. It took a while for our eyes to adjust to the shades of green under the foliage, but then we saw the two ruffled and toothed bracts enclosing the husk and nut. It is larger than the beechnut husk and very pretty.
Henry and I tasted the nut, but again it was very bland and this time we decided it definitely was not ripe.
According to the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Department “The nuts of American hazelnut, which have a higher nutritional value than acorns and beechnuts, also are eaten by squirrels, foxes, deer, northern bobwhite, ruffed grouse, turkey, woodpeckers, and pheasants. The leaves, twigs, and catkins are browsed by rabbits, deer, and moose. The male catkins are a winter food for turkey and ruffed grouse. The dense, low growth habit provides cover and nesting sites for many wildlife species.”
This is frustrating news for me. I am not happy that deer, rabbits and squirrels might be attracted to my hazelnut planting, but glad that that the ruffed grouse and turkeys might be attracted to the fallen nuts.
Both beech and hazels are monoecious, which means male and female flowers appear on each plant. Male catkins appear on beech trees in the spring, while the long catkins of the hazel appear in the fall, but they don’t open until spring. The female flowers of both are small and inconspicuous.
Production of tree nuts can fluctuate a great deal from year to year. Beech trees older than 50 years produce the biggest crops, but only an outstanding crop every five years. It is clear that a small harvest will affect wildlife. Those animals that depend on nuts for a large portion of their diet will suffer when nut production is low.
Once again, I find that my own surroundings urge me on to a greater appreciation of the beauty of nature, and the beauty of nature’s systems. ###
Between the Rows September 14, 2013