A Walk in the Woods: Food Forest


Besides providing wood for making things and keeping warm, forests offer food. But these resources typically go unnoticed by human visitors today. This was not the case in centuries past, when many people relied on the regular, seasonal varieties of wild foods for nutrition. In fact, indigenous populations in North America utilized some 300 different species for food (compared with the 20 to 30 that the typical modern American eats).

One of the most recognizable is the acorn. This part of New England primarily features the Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) as we’re at or beyond the northern limit of the white oaks. Red oaks typically have especially bountiful mast production every other year. Last year was productive, even with a very dry summer, and we gathered a lot of acorns. Fortunately, red oak acorns store well, unlike the sweeter white oaks that must be processed soon after gathering or they will begin to either sprout or turn rancid. Acorns are high in tannic acid, but repeated soaks in water will remove that bitter taste. They have plenty of protein and fat and were a staple of indigenous inhabitants. We all know the great value of oak as lumber – it rives beautifully, and its strength is legendary. Freshly felled and split red oak smells like ketchup, oddly enough.

These woods feature a bunch of beaked hazels (Corylus cornuta), which are a common understory shrub in Maine but don’t attain nearly the stature of their European cousin (C. avellana). Our variety rarely reaches 10 feet in height, but it does produce small, delicious nuts. We were able to beat the squirrels for a small harvest for the first time this year.

After drying, the fuzzy husks and shells can be cracked to extract the nutmeat, which is good for eating without any preparation. In Europe, hazel is a common coppice tree – it splits cleanly and bends well. It’s been used for hurdles, barrel hoops, baskets, and other staples for many centuries. Though smaller, the wood of our hazels maintains similar qualities.

 

And did I mention the blueberries, blackberries, dewberries, and huckleberries we’ve been scarfing down this summer?

 

There’s lots of good stuff to be found in the woods.

 

-Mike






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