Nut trees and the squirrels who love them

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By Jeneen Wiche

The odd thing about living in the country is that squirrels are rarely the nuisance they can be to urban folk. I think country squirrels are wilder than city ones, but it also turns out that we are experiencing two different squirrel species all together. 

Acorns, walnuts, chestnuts and hickories certainly qualify as a worthwhile winter stash for a squirrel, but they also sustain themselves on other fruiting bodies like plums, paw-paws, serviceberries, holly berries, mulberries, crabapples, elderberries and the fruit from dogwoods and black gums.

I could go on. 

Basically, squirrels like many of the same trees we enjoy for their landscape value.   This is a delight for some gardeners and a pain for others.

The squirrels we encounter in the country are likely fox squirrels; they seem a bit bigger then their city cousins, measuring a 10 to 15-inch body and a 10 to 15-inch tail making them a bit more robust in appearance. They weigh about 1 ½ to 3 pounds.  The colorations are rich, the belly is a yellowish-orange color, reminiscent of a red fox, and the back can be gray to rusty in color. Fox squirrels are beautiful and they do look like foxes. One evening at dusk we saw a fox run by and we had to really focus to be sure that it wasn’t one of our big bushy-tailed fox squirrel. 

    Squirrels encountered in the city are likely the eastern gray squirrel which measures about 8 to 10-inch in body with an additional 8 to 10-inches in tail; and weighing an average 1 ½ pounds. The gray squirrel prefers eastern hardwood forests and thus is found in great numbers in older urban areas where the oaks, maples, ashes and walnuts have been around for generations. The gray squirrel is indeed gray with a bushy tail that has hairs tipped in white.  

This year we have a significant fox squirrel presence at the farm despite Buck’s (the dog) attempt to catch up with one. Perhaps it’s a warning of cold things to come or maybe just heightened awareness on our part…I think it is probably the mature nut grove down from the house. The fox squirrel loves nuts so wherever there are nut trees there are likely fox squirrels; and if there are native nut trees these squirrels don’t bother with your feeders.  In fact the more native nut trees we have around the better for all wildlife, bird, squirrel and beyond.  

We can grow a variety of native and non-native nut species for ornamental and food value in Kentuckiana. I think my favorite for ornamental purposes is the shag bark hickory; I have yet to harvest the nuts but have heard the shagbark is easiest of all the hickories.

For eating purposes you can’t beat the Chinese chestnut and the pecan. The hardest thing about Chinese chestnuts are picking the nuts out of the very sharp burr as soon as they drop from the tree…lined, leather work gloves will protect your hands adequately.  Process the chestnuts straight away for best quality; most other nuts can be shelled fresh and then frozen but it is best to roast or boil chestnuts when fresh before eating or freezing.  It is easier to cut a little notch into the chestnut when very fresh; plus the nut stays sweeter the sooner it is processed. Just roast at 400 for about 20 minutes (before they begin to explode.)

Select pecans noted for northern climes because the southern varieties usually don’t have a long enough season here to mature. Also be sure to have more then one for cross pollination; pecans are a little tricky because the male and female parts on each tree do their thing at separate times so we need a mix of early and late shedders to mix with the early and late bloomers. We have grown “Colby” and “Posey” successfully and have the cross-pollinator, “Major,” out in the nut grove.

Harvesting and processing nuts can be best described as really easy to really hard.  Walnuts are hard; pecans are easy; everything else fall somewhere in between.