This Sunday afternoon as I was lying under a Norway spruce at Tanglewood, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth at the final BSO performance of the season and looking up at the tree canopy above, I began to think about fall and the glory of the late season harvest. For many, the end of summer is a moment when they feel that their favorite seasonal foods – tomatoes, corn, and stone fruits such as peaches and plums– are passing and this is a sad moment. But for me, there is nothing more glorious than the fall harvest that is to come — the apples of my youth, cabbages, Brussel sprouts, and winter squash — and a food crop to which I rarely gave much thought before a trip several years ago to Japan. And if I needed another reminder of this other fall harvest, it was there at Tanglewood as I glanced up at the oak tree to my right and saw the developing acorns backlit by the late summer sun.
I have always been intrigued by nuts, which are botanically defined as the hard indehiscent fruits of trees and shrubs that have seeds that remain unattached to the hardened wall of the fruit or ovary and do not typically split open. Some examples are hazelnuts, chestnuts, and acorns. Technically almonds, as well as walnuts, and pistachios, are drupes like a peach or nectarine, which is apparent if you have ever compared the shell of an almond to the center of most stone fruits. These are known as culinary nuts, but are not botanically a nut. Drupes have pulpy exteriors that surround their hard-shelled fruits that contain their edible seed. Whether a true nut or a drupe, when we eat culinary nuts we are simply eating the seed within the fruit.
I have been fascinated that, given the current interest in growing our own food and the popularity of permaculture, so few of us grow these highly nutritious, protein-rich crops, but I, too, was late to the fold. While I was a student in Japan, I remember eating skewers of roasted fresh ginkgo nuts (botanically they are really seeds) at a yakitori-ya and loving their earthy rich flavor, which served as a nice contrast to the skewers of grilled chicken thighs and scallions that were the signature dish of the establishment. I had never thought of the gingko tree as a food source – their fruits were the source of consternation back in New York City when they fell to the street and the outer casing gave off a smell as they decayed. For this reason, only male ginkgo trees were typically planted in the city (The species is dioecious. Trees are either male or female, and only the pollinated females bear fruits.) Occasionally a tree’s sex is misread and a female tree, surrounded by a bevy of male trees, inhabits a block and makes her presence known come fall, as her fruits rain down on the sidewalk.
That fall, while I was in Tokyo for my last week in Japan, there was a monsoon that prevented me from going to see more of the gardens we had studied in my classes in Kyoto. As I would have little time on my last day before I headed to the airport to come home, I decided to get up early and visit the botanical garden. The storms had subsided and it was a cool, windy day. I woke unusually early, due to a wild change in barometric pressure, and walked across the silent city. I arrived at the garden well before it was to open. To my surprise, the front gate was mobbed with people, jostling one another to be at the front of the line, which was quite an unusual sight in Japan. I was puzzled by the mayhem and watched as the gates opened and the crowd ran into the garden and up a hill. People fell to the ground, and were quickly squirreling away whatever nuts they could find, loading them into pillowcases and bags that emerged from under their coats as they hurried to get their share of the coveted crop, which had been knocked to the earth by the winds of the monsoon. There was not a single upturned nose at the scent of these fruits. Of course, I knew that nut growers protect their crops from squirrels with netting. Keeping people away clearly required more: gates and a security system, as least as evidenced by the Tokyo Botanical Garden.
Having lived in the South, I had known the pleasure of a finding a ripened nut under a pecan tree, cracking it open and eating its savory kernel. I half wonder if, had Eve been a Southern belle, she would have tempted Adam with a pecan instead of an apple, or with a pecan pie, which certainly would have led us all to eternal damnation. For nothing is more memorable than the earthy goodness of a pecan, its bitter undertones softened by a sweetness and toothiness that is so satisfying. But that said, once I was living back north in Connecticut, I never thought to gather the hickory nuts that fell from our trees and shell them until I saw my dog Fred cracking their hard shells in his teeth (a noise that sounded like it was his teeth that were cracking), and then the ensuing silence as he savored the flavorful kernels inside. It was a task the carried him through the month of September. The minute he heard a nut fall (they made quite a thump when they fell from the 80 foot tall tree and could hurt if you were standing below), he was off and running for another treat.
But this week, sitting under a tree at Tanglewood, I saw myself at one with the squirrels, or maybe even with the pigs of Serrano, Spain, who are fed on a diet of acorns, to which the flavor of their prized hams is attributed. I dreamt of planting a non-same-sex pair of ginkgos and gathering their seeds in the years to come. I thought of this spring, as I watched the hazels in my new garden send out their catkins. I relived my excitement at the beauty of their flowers and their emerging nuts, encased in a sheaf of green. Apparently, I was so taken by their beauty that I forgot to net them and missed the harvest because the squirrels seemed to catch these ripened botanical nuts as they fell to the ground. Next year, I will outfox them. I also thought of the chestnut tree beside my house in glorious flower and its emerging spine-covered fruits that I cursed as I stepped on them barefoot the first spring that I moved here, but whose beauty was captured in a wagashi or Japanese tea treat. This treat was made to resemble a ripened chestnut that I had come to love in Kyoto. I saw their beauty anew and knew that I, just like the squirrels and the Spanish pigs and my dog Fred, had gone nuts.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.