by Kathy Wolfe

Sometimes you feel like a nut, and sometimes you just want the facts about them! Follow along for some nutty info.   

What’s the oldest tree food known to man? It’s the walnut, traced back to 7000 B.C. In ancient Persia, walnuts were reserved for royalty, and the early Romans referred to them as “Jupiter’s royal acorn.” The ancient Greeks called them “karyon,” meaning head, because the shell resembles a human head, and the meat of the walnut looks a lot like the brain. They grow on trees that can reach 60 feet (18.3 m) tall, increasing in size by 24 inches (61 cm) a year. A walnut tree can produce for more than 100 years.    So many good things can be said about this little nut! Walnuts are rich in essential nutrients, including magnesium and phosphorus, and abound in vital Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies indicate that walnuts reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as reducing total cholesterol and decreasing blood pressure. Evidence suggests that they can contribute to brain health, possibly even reversing cognitive decline.

    The state of California produces about a billion pounds of walnuts annually, 99% of the U.S. supply and is the source of two-thirds of the walnuts in the world.

Apparently there are competitions associated with cracking open walnuts. In 2017, a gentleman in India crushed 212 walnuts by hand in one minute. In 2016, a resident of Pakistan cracked open 181 walnuts against his head in a minute’s time.

    Like walnuts, almonds are an ancient food, one of the earliest cultivated foods. They are mentioned in the Bible ten times and were an ingredient in breads served to Egyptian pharaohs. The ancient Romans considered them a fertility charm and gifted newlyweds with a supply of almonds.

If there weren’t bees, we wouldn’t have almonds. Almond trees are not easily pollinated by the wind, so California growers rent bees to accomplish pollination, contracting with migratory beekeepers from 49 states to bring in nearly a million beehives every February. Almond production is a $6 billion industry every year, with California providing more than 80% of the world’s supply. Franciscan monks from Spain brought almond trees to the state in the mid-1700s, planting them at their missions along California coast from San Diego to Sonoma.

      Almond trees range in height from 13 ft. to 33 ft. (4-10 m), with a trunk diameter of about 12 in. (30 cm). Trees live between 20 and 25 years, and won’t bear fruit until their third or fourth year after planting.    We call almonds nuts, but botanically they are a stone fruit related to the peach, plum, cherry, and apricot.

    When harvest time arrives, the almonds are picked by a machine that actually shakes the nuts off the trees. The almonds are left on the ground to dry out for 5 to 10 days. A sweeper then picks them up and carts them off to the processor. Here they are sorted, hulled, and packaged. Even the hulls are useful, sold to dairy farms for animal bedding or burned for biofuel. About 40% of the total almond crop is used by chocolate manufacturers.

The health benefits of almonds abound! Just one ounce of these nuts contains half of the recommended daily amount of Vitamin E, required for the proper function of many of the body’s organs. Almonds are high in magnesium, important for muscular and nervous system functions, along with regulating blood pressure. Studies indicate that almonds contribute to heart health and brain health, even aiding in the repair of brain cells. Add in several B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, selenium, and copper and you have one of nature’s perfect foods.   

    The tropical rainforests of Africa abound with kola trees, those which bear seeds containing caffeine, used as flavoring agents in carbonated soft drinks. When Georgia pharmacist John Pemberton set out to concoct a new beverage in the 1880s, he combined the caffeine from kola nuts and cocaine-containing extracts from coca leaves, mixing them with sugar, flavorings, and carbonated water to invent Coca-Cola. The kola nuts are about 2-3% caffeine, and 1-2% theobromine, another stimulant substance. Kola nuts aren’t just a stimulant – the West Africans also use them to treat wounds, to prevent dysentery, to treat fever, and as a painkiller for headaches. To the Nigerians, the nuts are used in ceremonies, including weddings and funerals. The taste is bitter at first, but becomes sweeter as it is chewed. Although made famous by Coca-Cola, since 2016, the company has not used kola nuts in their soft drink recipe.

They might be called Brazil nuts, but it’s Bolivia that is the world’s greatest supplier. The country of Brazil exports just 2% of the supply. 

    Selenium is a mineral that is essential for proper performance of the body’s thyroid and immune systems. The best source of this mineral is Brazil nuts, with just one single kernel providing the entire 100% of the daily requirement. They also contain more magnesium than any other nut. Like the almond, Brazil nuts are not technically nuts, but rather seeds from one of the world’s largest trees, reaching heights of 200 feet (61 m) in the Amazon rainforest. The trunk’s diameter can reach well over 6 feet (1.8 m). A typical tree will live for 500 years, but it’s not unusual for them to reach 1,000 years of age.

Macadamia nuts are native to Australia, having been discovered there in the 1850s. They were studied and catalogued by Ferdinand von Mueller of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Mueller named the nuts in honor of his good friend, Dr. John Macadam, a scientist, chemist, philosopher, medical teacher, politician, and Australian cabinet minister. Not only are macadamia nuts one of the world’s most expensive nuts, they also have one of the hardest-shelled nuts, and require 300 lbs. of pressure to open. Once a tree is planted it can take 5 to 8 years to produce nuts. However, the tree can produce for up to 100 years! The trees were brought to the big island of Hawaii in 1921. It took 13 years for the trees to mature and bear nuts, with the fruit of the tree first offered for sale there in 1934. Dog owners need to be careful with the nuts around their pets, as they are highly toxic to them. Dogs can experience vomiting, lethargy, weakness, and even death after ingesting macadamia nuts.