Beechnuts, high in protein and fat, are the primary fall and winter food for many forest wildlife species including Red, Gray and Flying Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black Bears, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Wild Turkeys, and Ruffed and Spruce Grouse. The dependence of these animals on this food source makes them vulnerable to the American Beech’s cyclical nut production.
In the Northeast, American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) mast crops (amount of beechnuts produced by beech trees) have a two-year cycle: one year they produce an overabundance of nuts and the following year very few. Among other animals, Black Bears rely on these nuts to sustain themselves over the winter. That a bear’s nutritional health affects its reproductive health was documented in a study in Maine that showed that the mean proportion of female bears producing cubs decreased to 22% when a denning period followed a poor beechnut crop. During denning periods following good beechnut production, 80% of the productively available females produced cubs.
Many American Beech trees in the Northeast suffer from Beech Bark Disease which has seriously compromised their ability to produce nuts. Invasive scale insects (Cryptococcus fagisuga) invade a tree. Through a presently unknown mechanism, excessive feeding by these insects causes two different fungi (Neonectria faginata and Neonectria ditissima) to produce annual cankers on the bark of the tree. This disease decreases nut production, and eventually lesions around the tree girdle it and causes the tree’s death. The diminishing number of healthy beech trees will have a significant effect on consumers of beechnuts as well as a broad array of other organisms.
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Congratulations to “Deb” – the first person to correctly identify the subject of the most recent Mystery Photo as young Eastern Black Walnuts!
Eastern Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) produce abundant tiny male flowers on long, dangling, finger-like catkins. Female flowers, located on the same tree as male flowers, are fewer in number and are slightly larger. Being wind-pollinated, Black Walnut produces female flowers with stigmas (the top-most, pollen-receiving structures) which have a large surface area designed to catch pollen drifting in the wind. (These are the “rabbit ears.”) The stigmas often persist while the fruit matures — they are barely visible on the left walnut in photo.
By September, the walnuts will have matured. They then fall to the ground where their outer husk slowly decays. The fruits are well-known for leaching chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of other plants, an interaction known as “allelopathy” (literally meaning “making your neighbor sick”).
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Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a multi-stemmed shrub, is named for its fruit — a nut with a tubular husk (a modified leaf known as an involucre) that extends at least an inch beyond the nut, resembling a beak. The surface of the involucre is covered with fine filaments that can irritate the skin. The fruit grows individually as well as in clusters. There are two species of hazel in the Northeast. The other, American Hazel (Corylus americana), lacks the prolonged husk and instead has a short involucre with fringed edges.
The nuts of Beaked Hazelnut may be roasted and eaten — they ripen in August and September. One must be quick to harvest them, however, as they are highly sought after by Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, White-tailed Deer and squirrels, due to being rich in protein and fat. Most (99 percent) of the hazelnuts consumed by the U.S. are from a European species of hazel and are grown in Oregon.