University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Using Nuts from Shade Trees

August 19, 1999

If you have nut trees in the area, you’ve probably noticed the squirrels have been busy and fallen nuts can be tough on the lawn mower! The two common questions as we advance towards fall are can we eat nuts from our trees and can we plant them to grow a new tree?

Here's a review of the more common nut trees in our area and what to do with the harvest.

Probably the most visible are walnuts, which should be harvested as they fall from the tree. Hull right away for light-colored kernels, which have a milder flavor than darker kernels caused by allowing the hull to remain on and decompose. Thick, fleshy hulls can be removed by hand or mechanical devices such as corn shellers make it easier. After hulling, wash thoroughly and spread them out away from sunlight for 2 to 3 weeks of drying. Store in a cool, dry place.

Cracking walnuts to get the kernels can be made easier by soaking in water for 1 to 2 hours, draining, and storing in a closed container for 10 to 12 hours. The kernel will absorb enough moisture to become tough yet will remain loose in the shell.

Oaks may be loaded with them, but acorns are not edible and are considered poisonous to livestock if eaten in large amounts. While documentation of human poisoning isn't clear, children should not chew on acorns.

To grow an oak from an acorn, it's best to plant them right away. Put acorns into a bucket of water, the sound ones for planting will sink. Plant acorns 1/4 to 1 inch deep, and cover with hardware cloth to discourage rodents. Thin seedlings to 10-35 seedlings per square foot next spring and then transplant after 1 year.

Hickory nuts are edible, but it takes considerable effort to produce enough to use. Shells should readily fall off when the kernels are ready. Crack nuts open and extract the kernel inside. To grow a hickory, remove husks and store nuts in plastic bags at about 41 degrees for 3 months, or plant them right away and heavily mulch the soil. Plant 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches deep.

Horsechestnuts, members of the buckeye family, can be poisonous to livestock and potentially humans. Avoid eating or chewing on them. Often mistaken for chestnuts, the leaves of horsechestnut have 7 to 9 wedge-shaped leaflets arranged like spokes of a wheel. The nuts have thorny husks covering them. By comparison, chestnuts have large single leaves and husks that are very spiny. Chestnut blight has wiped out the chestnut tree, but resistant varieties may allow this tree to someday be common again.


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