Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Urban, Rural or Both: Both
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia or Fagus americana) nuts. Some like them, some find them a bit bitter. Don't eat huge quantities of them raw there is a small amount of a poison called fagin in them, though you would have to eat a lot to be affected. Roasted a bit will make them easier to shell. This is a nice snack food for the great taste when out walking in the fall, but it would be a lot of work to gather enough for adding to baked goods or similar, though it could be done. Usually the squirrels get most of them where I live, and some years the trees produce a good harvest, some years not. They come in an outer husk that has very stiff hairs. The outer husk splits when they are ready to harvest, that has to be removed first, then the leathery shell. I find a large percentage of the Beech nuts are empty.
Don't eat them from the European version of the Beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) unless you soak them in water for a day or two to remove the high tannin content. They don't taste as good either, even if you do process them to get the tannin out. If the Beech you find is planted in a garden or park, is a weeping beech, or has dark reddish or purple leaves, it is most likely a European Beech. If it is in woods in North America, very likely it is an American Beech.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
Good Choice if you live where the ground does not get walked on too much, or is away from city pollution. It is slow growing, and won't produce a crop of nuts until it is about 40 years old. The European Beech is more tolerant of city conditions and faster growing, but the fruit is not edible without processing.
For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website American Beech page.American Beech (Fagus grandifolia or Fagus americana):
- Plant Size: Up to 35 meters (115 feet) high
- Duration: Can live for hundreds of years - a slow growing tree
- Leaf Shape: Elliptic
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Alternate
- Leaf Size: Up to 12.5 cm (5 inches) long with short stem
- Leaf Margin: Serrated (saw toothed edge)
- Leaf Notes: Leaf veins terminate at each tooth on the leaf margin.
- Flowers: Male: Yellowish to slightly reddish flowers in spherical clusters on 2.5 cm (1 inch) stem. Female: flowers similar but on shorter stems
- Fruit: Thick outer husk with few, evenly spaced thick, short, stiff, reddish hairs. When fruit is ripe, the outer husk opens like a four petalled flower. Two nuts in leathery husk, triangular, dark brown to tan to reddish brown. Meat is white.
- Bark: Very smooth, silver grey bark even on mature trunks
- Habitat: Well drained, moist soils. Does not do well in polluted areas, or areas with a lot of traffic on ground around tree. Can withstand more shade than most trees - similar to the Sugar Maple in this regard.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia or Fagus americana) range. Distribution map courtesy of the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center, originally from "Atlas of United States Trees" by Elbert L. Little, Jr..
Close up of Beech Nuts almost ripe. Beech tree leaves are beautiful and distinctive.
Beech tree laden with Beech Nuts.
When Beech nuts are ready, the outer husk opens up like a four petal flower, leaving two, three sided nuts ready to be picked.
The two on the left are Beech nuts in the husk, the next one to the right is the nut in the leathery shell, the one on the right is the edible nut you eat. Be forewarned, the vast majority of nuts are empty in my experience. You can tell before opening the leathery shell. On the ones that are empty, the three flat sides of the nut are concave - hollowed inward. On the ones that have a nut inside, the three sides are flat and not concave. Don't confuse having the wings in each of the three corners for being concave. In the one above in the leathery shell, it had a nut in it.
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