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Sarah McKee: The case for public nut trees

AMHERST — That Saturday last fall, overcast skies hinted at winter. Though the deep, wet grass was yet green, the air was already chilly.

Amherst Public Shade Tree Committee member Henry Lappen and I were walking the Pine Street Co-Housing land that he’d planted years ago with pecan trees, edible acorn oaks, a butternut-heartnut hybrid called Buart (“Good nuts!” said Henry, “easier to crack”) and Turkish hazelnuts — not native to New England but willing to grow here.

When I’d asked at a Public Shade Tree Committee meeting last spring about nut trees for Amherst, the committee’s response had been receptive. Could some of the 2,000 shade trees that the town plans to plant during the next three years be nut trees? Henry and I were visiting his trees to consider it.

He twisted a cluster of spiny green growths from a branch of a bushy bur oak a few feet taller than us. Expertly thumb-nailing them open, Henry revealed three small, pale acorns that later turned a rich dark brown. These would be fine to eat. Of course, the Valley grows luscious black walnuts, as well! But why nut trees, and why now?

Some research finds that anything shade trees do, nut trees do better. This includes cooling the air, absorbing carbon dioxide and controlling air pollution. Little as anyone would want to cut it, nut tree timber may be more valuable, as well. These would be reasons enough.

And then there are the nuts! But wouldn’t these mess up Amherst’s streets? The question is fair.

Surely this depends on where nut trees are planted. Amherst neighborhood groups applying for the committee’s young trees may well have suitable space.

Could nuts, however, ever become a serious local food source? This question raises others. Wouldn’t that depend on how many nut trees we plant, whether as a town or privately; of what varieties and on how well we care for the trees and harvest their nuts?

Nuts have been a serious food source for Carol Deppe, author of “The Resilient Gardener” (Chelsea Press, 2010). From a longtime Portland resident, Deppe learned how to harvest that city’s neglected filberts and hazelnuts, then thought inedibly bitter and wormy.

“[N]early three hundred pounds of prime, gourmet-quality, nutritious food provided both meaningful food security and emotional comfort,” she writes.

Certain varieties may also yield oil, nut milk, nut butters, nut flour, tree nut sugar and more. American pioneers reportedly made red oak leaf wine.

Henry Lappen noted that locally grown nuts afford a companionable evening chatting with neighbors: leisurely cracking the shells, sharing the buttery kernels.

For today’s urban gardeners, nut trees are increasingly “in.” Nuts are, for instance, to be part of the seven-acre edible ecosystem of Seattle’s public Beacon Food Forest.

Nut trees take time. If they make sense for Amherst, now is when to start.

Though nuts are admittedly work, Henry mentioned several modern, highly efficient, low-tech nutcrackers. Yet low-tech, old-fashioned methods can still do the trick.

He put several of last year’s Buart nuts into a brown paper bag, placed that on his cellar floor and hammered at it several times. We then sat at his table, prying succulent nutmeats from cracked shells and chatting some more.

The Amherst Public Shade Tree Committee will shortly announce its search for the 2013 Amherst Neighborhood Tree Stewards (ANTS), a neighborhood group committed to planting at least 20 young trees on a fun-filled Saturday this coming September.

Committee Chair Hope Crolius notes that ANTS applicants can request fruit and nut trees, as well as other shade trees. The committee can advise on appropriate varieties. Amherst Tree Warden Alan Snow will provide expert advice on planting and care.

That cool day last fall, though, Henry Lappen’s parting comment was, to my mind, the best: “If you’re planting trees anyway — why not nuts?”

Sarah McKee lives in Amherst.

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