“Tastes like Wild Hickory Nuts”
Waiting for last Saturday’s Volkswagen Parade – that largest, longest, and most diverse of Eureka Springs parades – scheduled for 3 p.m., then still waiting at 3:30, I found myself sitting on a park bench, at the fore of Sweet Spring, staring at the ground.
I scanned the gravel in search of tiny fossils, and soon realized that the surface underfoot was not gravel at all, but actually mostly cracked hickory nutshells in various stage of decay. Above Sweet Spring a tall pignut hickory is perched on a ledge.
The hickory tree had created its own habitat on the ground of whole fresh fruits, fruit with browned shells, all with teeth marks. The high-caloric, fat- and protein-rich nuts, were all carefully cleaned out of broken shell fragments. Obviously, this spot, dominated by humans by day, is populated by satiated rodents by night. A veritable feast had been had underfoot, with the fragments of the hard shells blended into the pea gravel as if pebbles.
In Arkansas, we have 10 of the 13 North American species in the genus Carya. Once thought to be a uniquely American plant group, in the early 20th century new species were discovered in southern China, which has five species of hickories. One is the North American hickory known as the pecan tree, grown extensively in China, introduced and now established in the wild.
If you’ve ever had trouble distinguishing one hickory from another, you’re not alone. “From the great resemblance which several of the species have to each other… they are liable to be confounded, and distinct species are confounded almost universally,” wrote Bostonian George B. Emerson in his 1846 Report on Trees and Shrubs Growing Naturally in the Forests of Massachusetts. The identification of hickories has me fooled.
Though most of us think we haven’t eaten wild hickory nuts, we likely have. Yes, they’re the widely-cultivated tree – the pecan – a native hickory species Carya illinoensis. The words of the late wild food guru, Euell Gibbons, from a Post Grape-Nuts cereal TV commercial resounded in my ears, “Tastes like wild hickory nuts.”