Nuts were a very important food source for Native people of Arkansas and the wider Southeastern Woodlands. Not only are nuts great sources of protein and good fats, they are storable. If roasted, nuts can be stored and eatten over winter, a time when other plant food resources are scarce. Acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts were some of the most important nuts for people living in Arkansas.


(Quercus sp.)

We all are familiar with acorns, but many people may not realize that acorns are actually edible if properly processed and were an important food source for Indigenous people for millennia.

Oak trees produce abundant acorn crops every two or three years, depending upon the species.

Oak trees fall into two main categories: red oaks and white oaks. White oaks have less tannic acid in their acorns than red oaks do, and do not need to be processed as much as red oaks. However, they are more attractive to wildlife, so there is more risk that squirels and deer will eat them before they can be harvested by people.

In order to prevent sprouting, insect infestation and mold, acorns need to be lightly roasted before they can be stored.

Processing red oak acorns is necessary to remove the tannic acid that is naturally present in acorns. Tannic acid is removed by soaking acorn nut meat in water.

Acorns are a good source of carbohydrates. They were mainly used as a source of starch by Indigenous people. Prepared acorns would be pounded into a paste used to thicken soups or ground into flour and used to make bread or porridge.

Hickory Nuts

(Carya sp.)

There are several native species of hickory trees in the eastern United States including shagbark and mockernut. Pecans are actually a species of hickory, with especially thin shells.

Hickory trees often grow in groves with many hickory trees together in a group. Hickory nuts are visible in trees during the summer, but are not mature until fall. At that time, they fall off the tree (or are helped off by woodland creatures).

Initially, hickory fruits are green but turn brown. Their husks are divided into four parts, which open slightly when ripe.

If the hickory nut is mature, the husk is fairly easy to pull off the nutshell.

Indigenous people cracked hickory nuts  open using a stone mortar and pestle like this or a wooden mortar shaped from a hollowed log and a long wooden pestle.

The edible part of the nut- the nutmeat- is difficult to get out of the shell except in small pieces because of how irregularly shaped the nutshell is inside. Indigenous people got around this logistical issue by boiling broken nutshell with attached nutmeat in water, and scooping off the “nutmilk” or oil from the nut that rises to the top of the water.

Black Walnut

(Juglans nigra)

Black walnut are beautiful, large trees. Their leaves, bark, and nuts give off a chemical called “juglone,” which kills off and prevents plants from growing too near its trunk.

Black walnuts produce an abundant crop of nuts every two or three years. The fruit of the walnut (with the nut in the center) is green on the tree and when it first falls off, but turns black as it dries out.

Dried black walnuts in husk.

The actual nutshell is located within the walnut husk. Unshelled walnuts can be stored for a long time.

Black walnuts are the native walnut species in the Eastern Woodlands. They differ slightly in taste from English walnuts that we usually find in the grocery store. 

Black walnuts are a good source of protein. They are also fairly high in fat. Unlike hickory nuts, they would not have been pulverzied and boiled for oil- the tannins in the nutshell would taint the resulting nut milk. Instead, the nutmeat would have been picked out of the nutshells.


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