Beech Nuts are a Real Thing, and They’re Edible

Until I moved to the Ozarks, the phrase ‘beech nut’ only brought to mind a certain flavor of chewing tobacco. I’m not even sure that it’s a flavor. Maybe it’s just a brand name or something. I’m not a tobacco chewer, lol, so haven’t really paid close attention, but that’s what I thought of when I heard the words. However, I’ve seen real beech nuts since then and they really are nuts from a beech tree.

Additionally, they’re supposed to be a nutritious snack that can be foraged while out in the woods. I haven’t tried that yet, but will go out to see if I can find some today. You shouldn’t eat these raw, though. They need to be roasted, like chestnuts, to deactivate the saponin glycosides that are naturally present. Saponins are what gives soap it’s lather. Many seeds, like quinoa, have a saponin coating on them, nature’s way to protect themselves from predation. A few raw ones won’t hurt you, but a handful might cause some painful stomach upset.

Unlike the Hop Hornbeam I wrote about last week, at least I don’t think you won’t get a finger full of stickers when you try to gather beech nuts. The nut husks do look a bit prickly, but I don’t think they’ll be so painful to get at as the hornbeams.

The tree is distinctive in the riparian forests of the Buffalo River valley and else where around here. The easiest way to identify them is by their smooth light gray trunks. Here and there on the trunks of older trees are little clusters of tiny branches that seem to have never developed into limbs. Mature trees can get quite large in trunk girth, but most of the ones I see are much younger than that.

After most of the leaves have fallen from other trees, beech seems to cling to the past. Sometimes, they still have leaves when next season’s green starts coming on. They’re almost always still fully leafed here in winter snows.

If you touch the trunk, the bark almost feels like skin, rather than bark because it’s so smooth.

There’s plenty of them to see in the Boxley, Ponca, and anywhere along the Buffalo river area. There are even beech forests here.

Beech forest occurs on north facing slopes in moist ravines in the western portion of the Buffalo National River.

Where beech trees are abundant, it indicates good soil with access to a permanent water table. Most of the time they’re an understory tree within a predominant oak and hickory forest. There are beech trees at Hare’s Hideout Primitive Campground, too.

Beech nuts almost ready to harvest.
Beech nuts almost ready to harvest. © 2019 Robert Christopher

If you’re in far northwest Arkansas and want to see a very large and beautiful specimen beech, with easy access and clearly identified, there is one in the front parking area of the Compton Gardens in Bentonville.

About the Author
Madison Woods is a local artist who makes her watercolor paints from the Ozark rocks.

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