Forage Friday #29 American Beech

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When I started doing the Forage Friday posts I was concerned about finding enough plants that qualified as something one might forage. What shouldn’t have been a surprise was just how bountiful the wilderness of Appalachia is. The mountains are absolutely loaded with the American Beech. And a mature beech tree is capable of producing a huge amount of beech nuts. A few years ago when bio- diesel was a hot topic there was a lot of concern about converting crops into fuel and what that might mean for the food supply. At the time, I remembered reading in a survival book about people in the past substituting beechnut oil for lamp oil and the idea hit me that with the vast amount of beech nuts in the forest that perhaps a program to convert it into a fuel crop would be beneficial. I never really perused the idea but I never forget it either. The amount of eeffort it would take to do this even if it were only supplying energy for one household would make it impractical. But still, a little bit of beechnut oil has some interesting potential. The nuts themselves are edible but it’s not really a good idea to eat them raw in larger quantities due to a mild toxin called fagin. Fagin is found in the skin of nut itself and it’s said that roasting them makes it easier to remove the skin. ( similar to the skin found on chestnuts. ) The nuts are also a little astringent. As a kid I remember hoping that they would be like eating a raw chestnut and bit into one. I was pretty disappointed. Enough so that I gave up on them and spit it out almost immediately. But the oil is said to be quite different. The fagin is not present in the oil and neither is the tannins that make the nut astringent and slightly bitter. ( Tannins are water soluble and are removed by leeching in water. )

Last Friday I talked to you about how there’s actually a commercial market for Tiger Nuts and after posting the article I saw that the top Google results for Tiger Nuts was around $13.00 Per pound and the average yield was about 300 pounds per acre. But beech nut oil’ s top Google results was only one supplier at a whopping $75.00 for an 8 ounce bottle of cold pressed beech nut oil. I didn’t find enough hits to give me an idea of market demand for it but I did find srveral websites proclaiming health benefits of beech nut oil which makes it worthy of more research.

The unripe bur waiting for just the right moment to drop from the tree.

The nuts are born in burs and each bur contains 3 triangle shaped nuts. The shape of nut reminds me a bodkin style arrowhead. The nuts are also tiny. About the size of a large sunflower seed. The ground beneath the tree in my parent’s yard was so full of beech nuts that it was like walking in the pebbles near the edge of river. That’s even with a horde of squirrles carrying the nuts away as fast as they can. Beech nut trees don’t really bear fruit until they are about 40 years old but by the time they’re 60 years old they really make up for lost time.

From a foraging point of view beech trees also offer a few other things. The buds are also edible in early Spring although the papery shealth makes them a little awkward to consume. I have also tried the new leaves which aren’t too bad. The guide books say that the inner bark is also edible but if it’s like some of the other inner barks it requires a lot of work to process.

The wood of beech is sold as Maple and often has a beautiful grain that shows a lot of ray fleck.

As you look out of windows and see the bright yellow yellow leaves this fall some of them are going to be beech. It just might be worth a trek out to mark the spot of this very useful tree.

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