Written by Doug Crouch
Fruits and Nuts
Stumbling upon a rich harvest of wild fruits or nuts can be quite a rewarding jaunt into the forest and warrants further stewardship of the forest to ensure these harvests are reliable. They feed us and wildlife of all sorts so there is quite a crossover to managing for fish and wildlife habitat, which was part of a previous article. Having had the pleasure of harvesting bucket upon bucket of wild paw paws (Asimina triloba) when I was studying Fish and Wildlife Management back in 2003 in Southeast Ohio, this forest forgaging solidified my passion for this exact topic. I sold them at a local festival, the Paw Paw Fest, which shows the local culture around their wild harvest and cultivation. The festival has grown enormously and is part of the harvest festival season which represents this local food and its presence in the ecosystem there in the eastern half of the North America.
Paw Paw’s are a native fruit to North America strectching all the way from Canada down to Northern Georgia in the humid Temperate landscapes. It is a relative of other Annona’s and is the only temperate one of this amazing fruit family. All of its relatives are tropical or subtropical and this one is nonetheless tropical in its taste and texture despite surviving the extreme colds within these continental climate regions. Depending on the cultivar or wild harvest some have more of a banana flavor and others mango but they definitely have the distinct custard apple flavor and texture of its family. They grow in humid locations in the landscapes and are often found deep in the forest or on the edge. Manipulating the edge or canopy for more light penetration to these shrubs will allow for rhizominous expansion and greater fruit production. By managing for other non timber forest products like mushrooms, I augment the sub canopy through thinning and allow this more normal shrub layer pop into the sub-canopy and spread with greater fruit production (raccoon vector). To get richer harvests this is our main management tool, which is to let more light into the lower parts of the forest so that the layers embody diversity. In other words, our aim is to destratify parts of the forest which seem monoculture like and bring a different architecture to the forest. Furthermore, grafted cultivars can be purchased or created and planted in the system to ensure a known fruit quality and relative size. This is because what you find in the wilds all vary in size and flavor. Consequently, I am adding grafted varieties near my wild patches as to introduce a different set of genetics to help with the cross pollination and a consistent harvest to back up the wild harvest. This is because many paw paw patches are just one plant with the same genes as it has spread extensively through rhizominous growth and makes harvests quite low or completely obsolete. Thus the nature of its growth habits warrant introducing this diversity of grafted, proven genetics for greater yields and other cascading system benefits.
Another local fruit in that area that I have wild harvested is the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Its orange and mushy flesh is similar to its Asian cousin (Diospyros kaki), which is the most widely eaten fruit on the planet. The humid temperate one from North America produces an incredibly sugary fruit that ripens usually after the first frost and outcompetes Date Palm fruit with sugar content amazingly enough. People harvest them and process them through taking the seeds out and then freeze them to have a sugar resource for the winter. Furthermore, wild blackberries and raspberries (Rubus spp.) also are found on the edge of forests or in canopy breaks. It’s such a delightful sight and taste to come across these especially the black capped raspberry which gives such a unique color both from the fruit and the slightly blue tinged leaves. I have also collected serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), blueberries, and cranberries (Vaccinium spp.) in the forest or wetlands habitats that they thrive in.
In the Mediterranean stretches of Iberia it is great running into the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) and harvesting its unique fruits. Related to blueberries (Ericacaea family), this one, however, grows in extremely dry conditions. It has a waxy leaf and a beautiful growth habit and can be found on the edge or in deep canopy. Like Paw Paw’s with a bit more light it produces even more so managing the canopy is wise in these dry contexts. Most
are collected for making alcohol in Portugal but eating them fresh when fully ripe is also a viable yield. Moreover some elect to also make a jam as to preserve them in a different fashion as they go off quickly. In the Pacific Northwest of the states, which has a similar but not as harsh Mediterranean climate, a plethora of berries can be found. During my eight week PDC in Oregon (2005) I was like a bear running wild through the forest collecting wild berries and eating a few and feeding my fellow classmates with these unbelievable harvests. They came two ripe at a time so there was something constantly all summer. The first I can remember was the Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). WOW! Imagine crossing a peach and a blackberry and that is what you get both visually and in the taste. It grows in a thicket nature along the edge of streams that once used to be home to Salmon and bears (no pun intended) the color of their flesh. I also collected heaps of Armenian blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) and delighted in them even though they were not native. Another native fruit that was easy to see in the forest because of its growth type was the thimbleberry (Rubus paviflorus). This wild raspberry has thick, large, and velvety leaves and quite nice raspberry like fruits that when picked leave behind a thimble like white part. I would return day after day after long hikes to harvest them. I would combine them often with the late blackberries and early salal (Gaultheria shallon) that I would find. Salal are also blueberry relatives and grow as a ground cover and mentioned in the article on floral arrangement material in this non timber forest products series as their leaves are highly coveted in that trade. They grow densely in virtually complete shade and give a slightly sweet yet super anti oxidant rich berry. There were others like Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) but I think you get the fun I had that summer!
In the tropics I havent run across so many wild fruits its more the food forests that turn quickly into very jungly conditions. I have enjoyed still that simple pleasure of running around extensive sites looking for fruits and being dazzled when I would find the paw paw relatives like soursop (Annona muricata) splatted on the floor. There is most likely native ones in each forest and study of that is always good as you enter a new context.
As for nuts, back in the Eastern Deciduous forest, it is fun to collect hickory nuts (Carya spp.), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), and acorns (Quercus spp.). The Native Americans thrived on all of these as well as the associated wildlife that they hunted and can be seen as valuable harvests once more. The acorns were collected and leached of their bitter tannins and dried and consumed in varying ways. One way was to combine it with corn meal and with corns’
sweetness it would balance the hints of bitterness that acorns carry. However in that region and on my families land there is an oak that has very little tannins called Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). This majestic tree drops big acorns that require little or no leaching before you can eat them, which is quite easy with their thin shells to crack. There are also varying kinds of hickories that can be collected and even further south the pecan (Carya illinoinensis) can be collected which is a type of Hickory. Regardless they can be harvested and turned into varying things as the nuts can be eaten fresh or stored dry. Natives even made a sort of hickory milk from the hard to shuck pignut hickory but was rich in nutrition. In that ecosystem Black Walnuts have a shell that is extremely thick unlike their European cousin so they are harder to get a true yield from. They also don’t taste as good but definitely worth the effort so you can eat local. Furthermore, at one time chestnuts (Castanea spp.) abounded in this forest but the American one died out some years ago. Some people are now planting the Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima) and can be added on the edge or in canopy breaks. With the ash trees (Fraxinus spp.) dying out currently and their tendency to grow together and dominate little patches in the forest, I plan to use this canopy break for chestnuts, paw paw, and Persimmon. Another nut in this area that some are planting is the hybrid American and European Hazelnut (Corylus x) cross which can thrive on the edge of forest.
In the Mediterranean, acorns are also another great forest yield. The Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) is very similar to the Burr Oak in taste which grows all over Iberia and beyond. They often can be simply picked up and eaten or slightly washed. Cooking them with vegetables in a stir fry is a good option of how to use these large and tasty nuts. English walnuts (Juglans regia) are commonly planted and in abandoned situations, which are plenty in Portugal, you may also find some “wild” trees. Hazelnuts are grown more traditionally in this landscape so you may also find these or create a more forest like feeling with having lots of these in layers around your food forest or building off the edges. In similar climates you can even find Macadamia (Macadamia spp.) being cultivated or growing wild! What a treat but difficult to crack!
Finally as for tropical nuts, I echo what i said above with the fruit section. Its more food forest growth where you would find cashew (Anacardium occidentale) or breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum) growing and there is bound to be local species. Then there is the magical and wonderful creation that is the coconut. Growing on the edge of the sea, being blasted with wind and sea spray, roots in sand and salt water all around, and it still amazingly enough produces one of the most delectable and nutritious foods on the planet. It is grown outside of these sea edge habitat as well as I have harvested them in the lowland mountains of Costa Rica as well.
Saps and Resins
The main saps explored globally are those that produce sugar resources and their subsequent differing end products. In the temperate climatic zone the sap we are after most commonly is from the sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
and its wonderful end product of maple syrup. Some also tap birch trees (Betula spp.) and the process is similar of extraction and processing. Thus in the late winter or early spring nearing a full moon, the trees are tapped with a spile as the sap is rising again after the dormant period of winter (tree hibernation). In the past metals buckets were placed on the ground below the spile where the sap was collected as it dripped out. It was then moved in the buckets by hand down to the building (sugar shack) where the sap would be boiled down. Now modernly, because of costs and economy of scale, there is more plastic involved with connecting plastic tubing linked together and leading that to a lesser amount of buckets for the collection points. Interestingly enough what is collected can be consumed raw similar to the coconut water that comes pouring out of the young coconuts in the tropics. However to get the syrup, which is for preservation purposes, it is boiled down to get all the water out so it doesnt spoil or ferment. This syrup making process is energy intensive for sure as it takes quite a sustained heat over a prolonged period to evaporate the water out and create the consistency and sugar content of a syrup. In the past this was done with wood and in a more rudimentary style but now it is much more complicated and requires lots of regulated equipment and natural gas for commercial selling. There are alternatives of combining the two together and possibly even solar somehow to help on those sunny yet cold days. Thus fuel being another non timber forest product could combine with this syrup making process to make it more sustainable.
Another sugar resource I have seen and consumed in the tropics from a tree was the sugar palm. Willie Smits talks about it in his TED talk on reforestation in Borneo as being also a source of ethanol. While most commonly grown in monocultures, his was a belt of trees within a bigger agroforestry system to help with his orangutan sanctuary. It could be integrated in other ways in reforestation projects that have some level of biodiversity integration yet still have an efficient harvest system. There in the tropics the trees are slashed almost daily and the sap collected and processed with heat into a couple of different end products.
As for saps/resins (actually latex in this case) one of the most significant non timber forest products of the past in this category was the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis as well as other species). Its resin was collected and processed into a myriad of things including tires. These days in Portugal (2015) I have bought chewing gum that is made of rubber which is where it came from before it was synthetically produced. It is produced in Mayan regions of Central America as it was part of their tradition to chew on this product and we westerners gained it from them. Frankincense (Boswellia spp.) is a true resin that is collected for its odorous quality and of course has long been a part of traditional cultures to clean with its smoky essence. Both are examples of the many resins that are later transformed for some local or commercial usage and brings further value to a biodiverse forest.
Written by Doug Crouch
Header Art Maya Mor