Fall 2020 Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/20/2020

Today is the last day of fall. It feels like winter already, with snow still blanketing the fields from a storm earlier this week. Snow isn’t a regular feature of Maryland winters – one of the reasons I like living here!

From the warmth of my kitchen, I can gaze out at my white backyard and be grateful we don’t have to forage food for survival (yet), because this fall has been marked more by foraging failures than successes.

These foraging failures all represent significant sources of calories and nutrition which would have been vital for winter survival in a non-industrialized society. Our global supply chain and just in time delivery of essentials makes us lose sight of just how easy we have it, when we can hop in our car and drive to the grocery store whenever we need food. Until we can’t.

First and foremost, the hazelnut. Even though I found American hazelnut (Corylus americana) earlier this year, by the time the nuts were ripe in the fall only three nuts clung precariously to the branches. My husband helped retrieve the precious harvest and I let them sit for a week on a window sill for the husks to turn brown. I peeled the husks off, cracked the hazelnuts and … wow, they were really small, and the flavor … not that interesting. I had been particularly hoping hazelnut flour could be a recipe replacement for the very problematic almond flour, but I will have to rely on my own tiny orchard of hazelnut shrubs for that. Someday. Whenever they are mature enough to produce nuts!

In a similar vein, I had zero luck with acorns (Quercus spp.) of any sort. My husband scrounged together a handful of good sized acorns, but none of them passed the “float test” – meaning they were already partially eaten by acorn weevils – so there was no point in continuing to process them. Oaks tend to produce a bumper crop of acorns every few years (called a mast year), which may have occurred last year based on how easy it was to find and harvest acorns compared to this year.

A small basket of acorns, all infected with acorn weevils
A small basket of acorns, all infected with acorn weevils

Another good source of fall calories would be hickory nuts (Carya spp.). Most of the hickories in the nearby woods appear to be pignut hickory (Carya glabra) with nuts too small to bother. I know the more forage-worthy shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is around here somewhere, but it continues to elude me. (Apparently pecans (Carya illinoinensis) also grow wild in Maryland, just not my part of Maryland!)

You’ve probably grown sick of hearing about hackberries (Celtis occidentalis) – or the lack thereof! I haven’t had a “decent” harvest since 2017 (mentioned briefly in this post from 2018), and even that one was only big enough for a single glass of hackberry milk! In my foraging video from earlier this year, I walked right past every single hackberry tree I encountered with no mention, because frankly there was nothing to see! I don’t know why the local trees haven’t produced berries – something weather related, like the late frosts we’ve suffered in recent springs? Atmospheric conditions like carbon levels? Soil nutrient or pH imbalances? We may never know.

Last but not least … even though I foraged persimmons, that whole experience was still a failure in my book. Which is too bad because while nuts and acorns and hackberries would be a great source of winter calories, fruit would be a welcome addition too. While my modern, industrial self prefers a low carb diet that mostly avoids fruit, those sugary calories would be very advantageous in a lower-energy world. If only they had been edible!

What foraging successes or failures have you experienced this fall?

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