Collecting Ozark Chinquapin Nuts: Then & Now
by A.J. Hendershott
The simplest thing in the world is picking up a nut off the ground. Right? It is, isn’t it? You see a nut, you bend over, grasp it and stand back up with the nut in hand. Simple. That is what I thought until I started to read historic accounts of collecting Ozark chinquapins. What I discovered is collecting this tree’s nuts, is indeed simple but it is richer than I would have thought. Take for example the risks of mild pain from the spines, and chigger infestations while collecting. In a few rare instances the methods for releasing nuts from the tree, they got injured. Then there were stories where collecting the nuts by hand was too slow. In these cases baskets, shovels, buckets, or bushel baskets were needed. Some nuts did indeed come from the ground and carpeted the soil underneath them. If this piques your attention then please read along and discover a few stories worth telling, and all are centered around the tasty effort of collecting chinquapins to eat.
A Look Back
Darrell Williams grew up in Barry County of southwest Missouri and remembers collecting chinquapins before the blight ever arrived in the 1940s. In a 2006 interview with the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, he recalled his memories of the tasty nut’s collection, “We used to hunt for chinquapins when I was a kid. They covered the ground. The burs generally open up enough for the nut to fall out.”
“If a good wind came by or you shook the tree the ground would just be covered with chinquapins. You might get an acorn crop like this occasionally, but not very often. If you shook a chinquapin, you could gather all you wanted without raking the leaves back.”
Many depression era children have memories of collecting chinquapins. They took them to school and ate them as their lunch. The nuts were sweet which many people will easily recount. What most don’t know is the nuts are also full of protein which takes longer to digest and ultimately more fulfilling. Thus, hunting chinquapins became a huge deal for countless children.
“All the local kids, we’d take buckets with us and go chinquapin hunting. We’d shake trees to get the nuts to fall and pick ‘em up. But all folks did this. Everyone who was young had chores back then, so you’d get a pocket full of chinquapins and eat chinquapins while you did your chores.” Williams explained.
Shaking the tree was one of many ways to get burs and nuts to fall. Numerous newspapers all over the Deep South mention children throwing rocks or sticks up at limbs to jar seeds loose. Some people even used long sticks to whack limbs for the same effect.
Sometimes the bur fell to the ground without releasing the nut. In that situation Williams had this advice. “If the bur didn’t open, you’d have to stomp ‘em with your foot.” He didn’t say it, but I am certain he meant for stomping to be done with shoes on.
Williams highlighted promptness when collecting chinquapin fruit, “nuts don’t lay under a tree for very long as little mice and squirrels get ‘em. They’re sweeter than any pecan” he said with a chuckle.
Then Williams conveyed the most important tip for new chinquapin hunters – how did you eat them. “Stick em in your mouth and crack that shell with your teeth and get that goody out”.
Born in 1925 Claud Lewis of Everton, Arkansas remembered collecting ripe chinquapins. He mentioned a couple of facts that are worth recording. “We threw rocks at them. We would gather them by the flour sacks full,” Lewis commented.
Lewis wasn’t aiming at the bur clusters but the limbs. Shaking the limbs caused the burs cluster and nuts in open burs to drop form the tree. This required a modestly large rock that a child could throw. The thoughts of collecting nuts by the flour sack is fascinating and leads chinquapin enthusiasts to dream of what may be to come.
Larry D. Bintliff, was born at the end of the 1940s and had fond memories of his dad teaching him about chinquapin harvest. According to Bintiff, “I grew up in Sylvan Hills, North Little Rock, AR. in the 50s and 60s. My dad grew up in Bee Branch, AR in the 20-40s. He taught me how to use two flat rocks to put the Chinquapin bur in between and press down and roll it around till you could get the tasty nut out without being stuck by the spines on the bur.”
A review of newspaper references to chinquapins all over the range of the Allegheny and Ozark chinquapins references throwing sticks and rocks. Sometimes the reason this method was recorded was because the thrown rock tumbled back down on the thrower, inflicting injury.
Williams, Lewis and Bintiff were in good company because many others had keen memories about collecting the Ozark chinquapin nuts. Harold Adams was perhaps the patron saint of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation because it was his interactions with Steve Bost that led him to create the Foundation. Adams shared his memories of “chinkeypins” from southeast Missouri Ozarks with Bost.
When he was 85 years old Adams told Bost, “the Ozark chinquapin were delicious, and we waited for them to fall like you would wait on a crop of corn to ripen . . . they were that important. Up on the hilltop the nuts were so plentiful that we scooped them up with flat blade shovels and loaded them into the wagons to be used as livestock feed, to eat for ourselves, and to sell. Deer, bears, turkeys, squirrels, and a variety of other wildlife fattened up on the sweet crop of nuts that fell every year. But, starting in the 1950’s and 60’ all of the trees started dying off. Now they are all gone, and no one has heard of them.”
Adams was referring to the chinquapins succumbing to the Chinese chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) which reached the Ozarks during the decade of World War II. The blight effectively strangles the tree which causes the tree to die off above ground. Then the tree will sprout around the stump and grow for about 10 years before it gets reinfected again. This impacted the tree’s ability to thrive and reproduce.
Kenneth Ruark of Washburn, Missouri was born in 1934 and was 77 at the time of the interview in 2012. “I live in Barry County which is in the southwest corner of Missouri. This area is hilly with rocks! Mainly flint rocks. I first heard about chinquapins when I was 3 or 4. Dad lived through the Depression when nobody had anything. My dad liked to make sure we had something special for Christmas, so we had roasted chinquapin nuts. To do this he placed chinquapin nuts in a bread pan and roasted them on a stove. He didn’t leave them in there too long. He’d cook ‘em long enough so he couldn’t put his hand in it. This was long enough to kill that little egg for the worms. If you tried to keep a fresh bag of chinquapin nuts without roasting them first, you would end up with nothing, but a bag filled with worm dust,” Ruark explained.
When Ruark was child the biggest issue impacting the chinquapin collection was infestation by chestnut weevils. Today the chestnut weevils are not so common, and the issue is not so expansive as they were in in the 1930s-40s. It is possible that oak weevils make use of chinquapins today, but many OCF members report no weevils in their chinquapin nuts whatsoever. To learn more about the “worms” infesting chinquapin nuts and methods of preserving them visit: https://ozarkchinquapinmembership.org/chinquapin-worms-preserving-ozark-chinquapin-nuts/
Chinquapins were prolific nut produces and it was not surprising to learn they were collected using wooden buckets, metal pails, bushel baskets, flour sacks, and even wagons. Ruark brought up a childhood memory illustrating children had another option for collection, “I remember coming home on a school bus and there was some big ole chinquapins alongside of the road. The ground would turn black from the chinquapins. The bus driver would stop and let us get out and gather chinquapins. Boys would put them in their pockets while girls would pull up their dresses to make a bit of a pouch to hold theirs.”
That was yet another testament to how prolific the tree was at producing nuts.
A Look Forward
Chinquapin trees are being replanted all over the Ozarks and parts of the eastern United States. Each year more and more trees are being planted by OCF members that have improved resistance to the blight. This means a new generation of Americans will have the privilege of collecting chinquapins for culinary consumption.
Today, we can learn a lot from the past generations with firsthand experience collecting chinquapins. Nut foraging from underneath a tree is totally worthwhile even though it comes with some competition. Rodents, and birds are still eager to eat the sweet nut meat and will try to collect a nut before anyone else can. It helps to have the area beneath the tree well maintained to limit weeds and other plant growth that would make collection difficult. In a lawn setting keeping grass lower in September really helps the ease of nut collection. A tarp on the ground is useful when shaking the tree to drop nuts.
A long pole can be used to “encourage” nuts to drop. President and founder of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation Steve Bost collects nuts annually for research, sending to members, and for occasional consumption. Some of the trees he is working with were planted in 2007 and range from 10-50 feet tall. Bost has been known to use a pole lopper to drag a limb further down so he can lop off the green burs or shake the limb if the bur is closer to being ripe.
Bost described the process he uses for pulling limbs down, “When collecting the nuts, prime time to harvest is when the bur is fully open to dry the nut in the sun and about to fall to the ground. The branches of the Ozark chinquapin easily bend more than most trees, making it easy to hand pluck the nuts from the opened bur while using one gloved hand. Using an extended pole with a hook on the end, you can easily pull-down nut laden branches to hand pick nuts from the open burs or clip starting to open burs from the branch using hand pruning loppers.”
Chris Wyatt is a county forester for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture in northwestern Arkansas and is an Ozark Chinquapin Foundation board member. He helps collect chinquapin seeds that are mailed to members each winter. Like Bost he uses an extendable pole lopper to grab limbs and lop off burs. According to Wyatt, “the burs are going to fall off anyway so lopping them is not detrimental to the tree and won’t affect next spring’s leaf out or blooming.”
“We cut off the burr cluster as close to the most basal burr if possible. This does not seem to lessen the growth or vigor of the tree. I actually think it increases the amount of growth and amount of blooms the next year. Pruning stimulates growth in about all trees.” Wyatt added.
It may be obvious, but Wyatt provided on additional tip, “I would suggest using leather gloves when handling burrs in the fall after the spines have hardened. The spines on the burrs are soft in the early part of summer. Most of our chinquapin collecting is in September or October with the peak being about the 20th of September.”
Shaking a tree is an inexpensive way to induce nut drop. Wyatt does this too, but cautions, “Sometimes I shake a tree, but it can cause me to lose more nuts.” This is due, in part, to nuts bouncing off hard objects or dropping in grass or brush where it is hard to see them. So, anyone collecting nuts needs to experiment and find what works best on their site and the trees they are working with.
Wyatt reports that he collects burs with nuts still inside and can typically fill a 5-gallon bucket, in about 10 minutes (Image A & B). He collects the burs just before they are ready to open up (Image C). This allows him to collect the nuts before his wildlife competition gets their paws or beaks on them.
Once Wyatt begins to remove the nuts from the bur that is where things slow down.
“I use needle nose pliers to remove the nuts from the burs,” says Wyatt. (Image D)
He also has a pair of thick gloves to protect his hands form the burs. Once removed the nuts are kept in the refrigerator for future use in planting, sending to members, or eating. (Image E)
Members have planted hundreds and even thousands of nuts in the last 15 years. Those trees are beginning to bear nuts and it will become important for the torch to be passed on how to collect these tasty and nutritious nuts. You might use simple historic methods as mentioned above or use the modern convenience of extension pole loppers. Or perhaps you are content to shake a tree and get what you can that way. Regardless, the tree is being restored and the intended results are being enjoyed.
Bost uses the same play book in removing the burs from the tree and removing them with pliers. A video of Bost doing this can be found on the OCF Facebook Page.
Restoration of this species in the 21st century comes with benefits, and all of that starts with collecting the nuts. The more things change the more they stay the same!