Sustainable and Wild Foods advice

January 22, 2023
by jhtalmadge

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

(Acer saccharum)

This impressive tree is best known for being the source of maple syrup and having one of the best
displays of fall color in the forest. The sugar maple’s leaf is the symbol of Canada and is visible on both
the country’s flag and coins. The sugar maple is also the state tree of New York, Vermont, West Virginia,
and Wisconsin. The National Champion Tree resides in Charlemont, Massachusetts. It stands at 112’ tall
with a 19’ diameter and a 91’ spread. These long-lived, slow-growing trees regularly live to be 200 years
This medium to large deciduous tree typically grows 60’ to 80’ height with a 30’ to 50’ spread. The oldest
recorded specimen lives in Pelham, Ontario and is thought to be about 500 years old. The sugar maple is
in the Soapberry family (Sapindaceae) with lychee and soapberry trees. Its common names are hard
maple, sugar tree, and rock maple.
The overall habit of the sugar maple is upright with a dense oval or rounded crown. The leaves are
5-lobed with short pointed or blunt, shallow lobes. The oppositely arranged dark-green, smooth, shiny,
leaves are 4- to 7- inches wide with a slightly shorter length. The leaves are coarsely toothed with fine
white hairs underneath. The stellar fall foliage varies from clear yellow to a fiery orange to red.
The slender, opposite twigs tend to be pale brown or greenish grey. Twigs are densely arranged on the
tree and buds are pointed. The dense branches are evenly proportioned about the tree. The bark is
smooth, grey-brown on younger sugar maples becoming furrowed and darker grey as they age. The bark
sometimes becomes plated on older trees. Their shallow and fibrous root systems are not prone to
being invasive.
The flowers are tiny, inconspicuous pale yellow with a light fragrance. They hang from long hairy stalks
in clusters of 8 to 12 flowers. Flowers appear in early spring as the leaves start to expand and create a
yellow fog about the tree when blooming. The fruit is a samara which is a winged nut. It contains one
seed with two wings and can fly like a helicopter. Ash and sycamore trees also exhibit this type of fruit.

Identifying Factors

1) The best identifier for sugar maples is their striking fall color. Depending on the weather, their
fall foliage can range from a brilliant red to tones of yellow and orange.
2) In early spring, their pale-yellow flowers are highly visible in a dormant forest.
3) Sugar maples tend to hold their dead leaves through much of the winter like beech and laurel
oak trees.
4) Once established, sugar maples tend to become the dominate species in that section of forest
where they are growing.


Sugar Maples prefer rich, moist soils. They grow on slopes, upland woods, in valleys, canyons, and along
banks of streams. Sometimes they are found growing on drier rocky hillsides and in ravines. These trees
range from northern Georgia, northward along the Appalachian Mountains through New England into
Novia Scotia, westward to Manitoba, southward through North Dakota into Oklahoma, eastern Kansas,
southern Missouri, and most of Tennessee. Sugar maples tend to be one of the most dominant trees in
their range and are sometimes found in pure stands. They live in Zones 3 to 8.

General Culture

Sugar maples can adapt to many soil types, even tolerating dense clay or alkaline soils. But they prefer
slightly acid, well-drained, moist soils. These trees don’t like dry, sandy soil. They also can’t tolerate
residual highway salt from ice remediation or compacted soils. Therefore, sugar maples don’t make
good median or parking lot trees.
Maples are very shade tolerant, but need at least 6 hours of sun to flourish. Overall, they are low
maintenance trees and can thrive without much attention to mulching, fertilizing, or watering once
established. Plant your tree in the cooler months of spring or fall as a balled & burlaped or container-
grown tree. Use organic soil amendments like ground pine bark, peat moss, or compost when planting.
Mulch them well with 2-4 inches of pine straw or pine nuggets to retain soil moisture and form a weed
barrier. Building a tree well is also recommended to hold more moisture. Irrigate daily for the first two
weeks after planting or if there is a hot/dry spell. The trees can benefit from annual fertilization in early
spring. Also, stressed trees can be aided by root feeding with a liquid fertilizer as needed.


Oddly enough, the best time to prune sugar maples is mid-summer. Most other trees should be pruned
in early spring. But, with sugar maples because the sap flow is slower in the warmer months it is better
to shape and train them then. This will help avoid excessive sap bleeding. Wounds will heal faster in July
and August thus making the tree less prone to bacterial or fungal infections. Mature sugar maples don’t
require much heavy pruning. Consistent, regular seasonal pruning when the trees are young will ensure
that the trees form a strong central leader and a well-rounded shape.


Sugar maple are wind pollinated although flying insects can play a marginal role. These trees are
monecious or exhibiting both male and female flowers on the same tree. They freely pollinate
themselves as their flowers mature in April and May.


There are numerous ways to propagate sugar maples. Most nurseries rely on grafting and budding to
make new trees. Other methods of propagation include cuttings, layering, and seed production.
The easiest form of propagation for sugar maples is by seed. Buy or harvest local seeds for the best
results. Seeds can be collected from October through November after the leaves start changing and
before the seeds start to be dispersed by the wind. Seeds turn a light brown when mature. Test a few
sample seeds for viability. Good, fertilized embryos will be firm while empty unfertilized seeds will easily
be crushed. Cut the clusters of winged seeds from the young twigs at the ends of branches. Seeds don’t
require any cleaning, but the wings can be removed for easier storage. Dry the seeds for 2-4 weeks,
whether saving them for fall planting outdoors or starting cold stratification. The seeds require moist
cold stratification, to mimic the passage of winter, at temperatures at 33 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for
60 to 90 days. The ideal temperature for germination is 34 degrees F. Use a moist stratification mix
made of 50% peat and 50% sand or vermiculite to maintain seed moisture levels. Plant your seed at ½”
to ¾” deep. Germination should be uniform and germination rates of up to 95% can be expected.
Studies have shown seedlings thrive when grown under 40 to 60% shade their first two years.
Another option is softwood cuttings which can be taken in late spring. Cuttings should be taken in early
morning while twigs are turgid. Take 4- to 6-inch cuttings with 3 nodes present. Place them immediately
in water or in a plastic baggie to minimize water loss. Stick them in trays of a well-drained medium such
as a mixture of 50% finely ground bark or peat moss and 50% coarse sand or perlite. Remove the tips of
cuttings and scrape off a ½-inch section of bark on the base of each cutting for better rooting. Place the
flats in a clear plastic mist tent for moisture control. Mist regularly. If possible, use bottom heat set at
64-75 degrees F. The cuttings should be rooted in 6 to 10 weeks. They can be potted in 1-gallon pots the
following spring and field planted in 2 to 3 years.
In the commercial nursery realm, most new cultivars of sugar maples are made by whip-and-tongue
grafts or bud-grafting. Both require a high degree of dexterity and skill that is better left to professional

Pests, Diseases, and General Problems

Though they rarely do any measurable damage. Sugar maples can be fraught with numerous pests such
as pear thrips, bagworms, tent caterpillars, green striped maple worms, leaf rollers, potato leafhoppers,
giant bark aphids, gloomy scale, cottony maple scale, maple shoot borers, and maple petiole borers.
These usually do no more than strip some leaves, produce unsightly honeydew, and damage a few
stems or twigs. Sugar maples are hardy trees and do not normally succumb to attacking pests. Young
trees may benefit from treatments of neem oil or other horticultural oils.
Several leaf spot diseases such as anthracnose can affect these trees but usually do no serious harm. The
only life-threatening disease for sugar maples is verticillium wilt, which is systemic and often fatal.
Sunscald can be a problem to the thin bark of sugar maples, especially to younger trees. To prevent sun
damage to the bark of young trees, wrap the trunks with crepe tree tape. During the hot, dry periods of
summer in the South, leaf scorch or “tatter” can become a problem. Sugar maples are not very drought

tolerant and should not be planted in areas with poor, dry, compacted soil. These trees don’t do well in
most city settings or as median trees because they are sensitive to high sodium in soils coming from de-
icing roads or parking lots. Like silver maples, sugar maples can cause challenges growing turf under
them due to their shallow root systems and dense canopies. Another possible problem with these trees
is their weak branch crotches, like Bradford pears. They may break up during high winds or ice storms.

Harvest & Storage

The Sugaring Season is when sap is collected. This short period normally runs from mid-February to mid-
March, when the night temperatures are below freezing, and the day temperatures are above freezing.
The sap is rising and has the highest sugar content during this period when the trees are breaking
dormancy. It is best to stop harvesting sap before the buds begin to open. The sap will begin to have an
unpleasant flavor and have a lower sugar content. This change in dormancy marks the end of what is
called the Sugaring Season. Mature trees produce between 10 and 20 gallons of sap per season. It takes
about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
The collected sap can be concentrated into syrup by boiling the liquid down or by reverse osmosis. It is a
labor-intensive process to boil down the precious sap to make syrup. Usually taking 2 days when done
on a small scale by an individual. The sap is poured into stock pots or metal evaporator pans then
cooked over open fires or propane burners. The darkest, most condensed syrup called amber grade or
dark is the most nutritious. Sycamores trees and other maples such as red maple, silver maple and
boxelder maple can also be tapped for their sap to make sugar or syrup, but sugar maples have the
highest sugar content by far.

Culinary Uses

Maple syrup is a staple kitchen ingredient. It can be used as a condiment on waffles, pancakes, French
toast, or to pour into porridge or oatmeal as a sweetener. It is often used in baking as a sweetener or
flavoring agent.
The maple fruit, samaras, can also be eaten as a snack. First the green samaras are picked, and their
wings removed, then seasoned, roasted, or boiled. Also, young leaves and the inner bark can be foraged.
These can be eaten raw or cooked.

Nutritional Benefits

It is counter intuitive to think using a sweetener like maple syrup, raw honey, or molasses can be good
for you. Maple syrup is a good source of minerals and vitamins. Maple syrup is also full of B vitamins,
especially riboflavin. Maple syrup is high in minerals such as zinc, manganese, calcium, potassium,
copper, magnesium, and iron. Zinc can help improve immunity, especially by slowing the multiplication
of viruses. Whereas, manganese is involved in calcium absorption, blood sugar regulation, and nerve

function. This natural sweetener also has 24 natural antioxidants. These bioactive inflammation-
reducing compounds help protect the immune and nervous systems by reducing free radical damage.
Gallic acid, benzoic acid, and flavanols, such as quercetin or catechin are some of the antioxidants
present in maple syrup. Be sure to purchase dark or B-grade maple syrups, when possible since these
contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter grades.
Maple syrup has a lower glycemic index and is lower in calories than raw honey making it a healthier
sweetener choice. Having a low glycemic response makes it good for liver metabolism and maintaining a
favorable intestinal microbiome. Opting for a natural sweetener like maple syrup can help reduce your
intake of refined sugar and artificial sweeteners that cause so many problems like leaky gut syndrome,
irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Maple syrup is also thought to protect from or slow the growth of colorectal cancer. Research indicates
that maple syrup may protect brain cells from aging and neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and
Alzheimer by lowering nerve inflammation. With its special cocktail of antioxidants, it is supportive of
good reproductive and heart health. Finally, in recent research, maple syrup was found to aid the
efficacy of antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin.

Native American Uses

Native peoples taught the English and French settlers how to harvest sugar maple sap to make syrup
and sugar. Many tribes such as the Dakota, Cherokee, Iroquis, Chippewa, Menominee, and Ojibwa used
the sap either as a fresh drink or boiled it down into syrup or sugar. The industrious Chippewa traded
the maple sugar to other tribes that didn’t have the prized sugar maples in their area. Many First Nation
people used maple sugar as a seasoning instead of salt. The Potawatomi made a taffy candy for children
as well as letting the sap ferment into a vinegar for cooking. Whereas the Iroquis made a sweet beer by
fermenting the maple sap and bread by mixing ground bark with maple sugar.
Drugs were also made from the inner bark of the sugar maple. Mohegan and Potawatomi made cough
syrup as an expectorant to break up phlegm. The Iroquois concocted an infusion of the inner bark for
eye maladies.
Maple wood was used by the Micmac to make bows and arrows. The Ojibwa employed maple wood for
spoons, paddles, and bowls for cooking. While the Cherokee used maple lumber to make furniture,
structures, and pieces of art.

Ornamental Uses

As one of America’s most-loved trees, the sugar maple is an ideal landscape choice. It is a superior large
ornamental shade tree with an attractive habit, and it exhibits spectacular fall color. It is best suited for
larger sites such as parks, golf courses, and larger residential yards. Sugar maples don’t do particularly
well planted in smaller yards and gardens. Nor do they perform well when planted near streets or
parking lots where they might be exposed to road salts, soil compaction, air pollution, and high heat. It is
also best not to plant them near paved sidewalks, patios, or driveways because of the heaving effect of
their shallow roots.

Other Uses

The sugar maple is one of the most commercially significant hardwoods in North America. The leaves
are used to pack apples and root crops to help preserve them. The wood is highly prized for its
toughness, weight, closed grain, ability to remain smooth when abrased, and its capacity to be highly
polished. This unique wood is especially treasured for the unusual grain patterns known as bird’s eye
maple, fiddle back maple, and curly maple. For this reason, sugar maple is a leading wood used for
furniture, cabinets, flooring, paneling, turnery, and musical instruments. Because the wood also has
good resistance to vibration it is used for tool handles, gunstocks, bowling pins and other sporting
goods. This hard wood holds nails well, is easily glued, and resists shrinkage is also used for ship building
and cutting blocks. The wood is an excellent fuel wood forming extremely hot embers and giving off lots
of heat.
The trees act as mast for songbirds and gamebirds. Many animals such as deer, squirrels, and rabbits like
to feed on the bark and leaves.

Recommended & Related Varieties

Many cultivars of sugar maples for southern climates have been selected over the last several decades
and are available at local nurseries. Some of the better varieties for the South are listed below:
‘Commemoration’ – this variety colors-up in early fall and has good heat tolerance. It has bright red-
orange fall color.
‘Crescendo’ – a cultivar introduced by Morton Arboretum in Illinois. It has good heat and drought
tolerance once established. It has orange red to bright red fall color.
‘Green Mountain’ – dependable in urban settings with good yellow orange to reddish orange fall color.
‘Harvest Moon’ – a selection made in eastern Georgia. It is heat tolerant and has orange fall foliage.
‘Legacy’ – a dependable variety for southern states. Its crown is 50% fuller than other sugar maple
varieties. It has excellent drought resistance and good red to orange-yellow fall color.
Most taxonomist agree there are four other maples species closely related to the sugar maple:
1) Acer barbatum or A. subsp. floridanum (Southern Sugar Maple) is a smaller spreading tree like
the sugar maple found along creeks and in swamps. It has yellow to rust colored fall foliage.
2) Acer grandidentatum (Canyon Maple) is also a smaller tree found in the Rocky Mountains. It has
good tolerance to dry conditions and alkaline soils.
3) Acer leucoderme (Chalkbark Maple) is a small tree with pale gray bark and pubescent leaves.

4) Acer nigrum (Black Maple) is almost identical to sugar maple except its three-lobed leaves curl
downward and is found in hotter, drier areas.

References & Related Links
1) Fredrick, Kate Carter. Miracle-Gro Guide to Growing Stunning Trees & Shrubs. Des Moines, IA:
Meredith Publishing, 2005.
2) Hastings, Don. Trees for the South. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 2001.
3) Moerman, David E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
4) Petruzzello, M. 2019. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from
5) Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Trees. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
6) Stephens, J. 2015. Retrieved October 30, 2022, from
7) Sternberg, Guy & Wilson, Jim. Native Trees for North America. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.
8) Toogood, A. American Horticultural Society Plant Propagation. New York: DK Publishing, 1999.
9) Townsend, L & Larson, J. 2020. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from
10) Tubbs, C. H, Yawney, H.W. & Godman, R.M. 2015. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from
11) Wasowski, S. & Wasowski, A. Gardening with Native Plants of the South. New York: Taylor Trade
Publishing, 1994.
12) Dirr, Michael A. & Heuser, Charles W. Jr. The Reference Manuel of Woody Plant Propagation.
Athens, GA: Varsity Press, 1987.
1) Day Spring Nursery – Rock Island, TN –
2) Native Forest Nursery – Chatsworth, GA –
3) Nature Hills Nursery – Omaha, NE –
4) Wilson Brothers Gardens – McDonough, GA –

September 18, 2021
by jhtalmadge

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickory

(Carya ovata)

I ruined many good white T-shirts, when I was a boy, harvesting hickory nuts in fall by creating a makeshift bag out of my T-shirt. The neighborhood kids and I would then sit in a circle around whomever was cracking the nuts waiting to get tiny bits of the sweet nutmeats.

The Shagbark Hickory is a member of the walnut family, Juglandaceae. The genus name, Carya, is the Greek word for walnut. The species name, ovata, is Latin for ovate or round for the shape of its fruit (nut). The common name refers to the way the bark of the tree curls away from the tree in long plates, giving the tree a shaggy appearance. Other common names for this tree are Scalybark Hickory, Shellbark Hickory, and Upland Hickory. The genus Carya is composed of pecans and hickories. These trees are medium to large, long-lived, deciduous trees with tall trunks. The Shagbark Hickory grows to an average of 60 to 90 feet with a spread up to 45 feet. The Champion Tree is in Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. It is a massive 153 feet tall with a 3-foot diameter trunk.

This tree instills patience. When planting a Shagbark Hickory tree, you are planting a tree for future generations to appreciate. It is slow to grow and slow to mature. It sometimes takes 30 to 40 years to produce its first good crop of nuts. Also, extracting the nut meats is extremely tedious and time consuming. But, on the upside these trees can live hundreds of years.


The Shagbark Hickory is like the walnut. It is a tall tree with pinnately compound leaves, but the Shagbark only has 5 to 7 (usually just 5) leaflets. The final 3 leaflets are larger than the rest with the final leaflet being the largest. The smooth, glossy, yellow-green leaves are arranged alternately and are 8 inches to 14 inches long with an 8-inch to 12-inch spread. The leaflets are broadly ovate to elliptic with pointed tips and finely serrated edges. Each leaflet has tufts of hair at the tip of each tooth along the leaf margin. In fall, the leaves turn brilliant golden yellow and then end in a deep golden brown before dropping.

The thick, crooked twigs are red brown to light grey and end in large, hairy brown, terminal buds with 2 to 4 overlapping scales. The Shagbark Hickory’s branches are large and stout with dark grey bark. Branches start high on the tree and form in alternate positions ascending the tall straight trunk.

Male (staminate)flowers are 3-to-6-inch, pendulous, green, hairy catkins. Female (pistillate) flowers are short, 1/8-inch, conical spikes at the tips of young shoots. Both flowers open when the leaves are nearly full-sized in March, but the male catkins first appear in late fall.

The fertilized fruit of the Shagbark Hickory form in clusters of 1 to 3 at the end of the branches. These fruits are nearly round edible nuts. The nuts are covered in a thick, dark-green husk that is flattened at one tip and divided into 4 equal sections with indented margins. The husk or involucre turns brown to brownish-black when mature and splits at the base when ripe. The boney nut inside the husk is light- brownish white and has a relatively thin shell enclosing a sweet edible seed.

The bark of young Shagbark Hickories is smooth and gray, but as the tree ages, the bark becomes more ragged and begins to exfoliate into 1-to-3-inch strips up to 12 inches long. These strips or plates of bark curl outward at each end, thus giving the tree its distinctively shaggy or rough unkept appearance. 

These trees have extremely long taproots with spreading lateral roots. The taproots can sometimes be   1 1/2 times the length of their trunks as young saplings 3 to 6 feet tall. This fact makes the trees difficult to transplant in a nursery or orchard setting.

The overall habit of the Shagbark Hickory is an irregular oval shape with a wide top running 2 to 4 times longer than broad. The crown is rounded with leaves formed in large clumps down the tree.

Shagbark Hickory's compound leaf, bark, nut (fruit), nut husk, and male flower (catkin). Illustration provided by Karen M. Johnson.
Shagbark Hickory’s compound leaf, bark, nut (fruit), nut husk, and male flower (catkin). Illustration provided by Karen M. Johnson.

Identifying Factors

  1. The exfoliating planks of bark is the most distinguishing characteristic.
  2. The compound leaves, usually made up of 5 leaflets, turn vibrant yellow or gold bronze in fall before dropping.
  3. The leaves of the Shagbark Hickory are aromatic. They have a faint scent of apples when crushed, whereas other hickories smell astringent.
  4. The husks of the nuts are split at the base into 4 sections and have indented margins.

Habitat /Range /Zone

Shagbark Hickories tend to grow along river bottoms, on upland slopes, at the edges of mixed hardwood forests, in moist fertile valleys, on mountain ridges, and sometimes in open fields. Shagbarks range across a broad region of North America. They are found from southwest Quebec Canada, east to southern Maine, southward to northern Florida, westward to eastern Texas and northward to southeast Minnesota. The only exception to this broad range is a few clusters growing along the southern Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi Valley. These trees live in zones 4 through 8 and have good cold hardiness down to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. They prefer a humid climate but can adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions. They are also somewhat resistant to fire damage, even more so than maples.

General Culture

Shagbark hickories like full sun to partial shade. They prefer deep, loose, loamy, well-drained soils because of their deep tap roots, but they can tolerate other soils, even heavy clay soils. They do not like sandy soils. Their tap root grows faster than the stem above ground, sometimes 2 to 3 feet the first growing season. They like a habitat where the soil is evenly moist through the year.

Irrigation & Fertilization

Water your young tree thoroughly once a week until it is well established. After that, the tree should be fine except in times of drought. By keeping your tree well-watered it is less likely to have pest problems.

Fertilize your tree once a year, in early spring, after it has become established. Continue fertilizing every spring until it begins bearing nuts at about 10 to 15 years of age. Use a balanced granular fertilizer like 10-10-10 at the rate of 1 pound per caliper inch of trunk (i.e. a 3-inch caliper tree would take 3 pounds of fertilizer). Do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer as this will cause excessive foliage growth and less nut production. Each year spread the fertilizer out evenly to just beyond the drip line.

Pruning & Training

No pruning is required on Shagbark Hickory trees. They only require periodic removal of crossed branches and damaged or diseased limbs.


Shagbark hickories are monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers are produced on the same tree. Male flowers are long, narrow catkins that hang freely in groups of 3 from each stalk. Female flowers appear at the tips of twigs in groups of 2 to 5. The flowers develop with the leaves in late April or early May. The primary means of pollen dispersal is by wind. Shagbark hickories are self-fertile, but yields can benefit from planting more than one tree.


Hickories grow best when planted from seeds (nuts). Nuts can germinate without a cold treatment, but a period of cold stratification is recommended.

Collect the nuts in fall and soak them in room temperature water for 2 to 4 days. Make several water changes during this period as the water gets clouded with tannins. Let the nuts dry for a day. After they have dried, place them in plastic containers of moist sand. Keep the nuts refrigerated for 90 to 150 days. Cold stratification for 90 days at 30- to 40-degrees Fahrenheit seems to be optimal for the best germination.

Pest & Disease

Shagbark Hickory trees are vigorous and, if undamaged, usually have no serious pest or disease problems. Normally they live trouble-free and rarely need any special care. But they can be affected by a long list of diseases such as anthracnose, crown gall, powdery mildew, and viral bunch disease. These trees are the most susceptible to canker rot fungus, so be sure to scrape out any soft, discolored wood before this fungus gets a toehold in the tree.

Just like diseases, pests seldom threaten these tree’s long-term health, although they can be affected by up to 180 different species of insects and mites. Hickories can be seriously damaged by a few pests such as caterpillars, leafhoppers, twig girdlers, pecan weevils, lace bugs, and aphids. But, the most potentially damaging to the entire tree is the hickory bark beetle. Nut production can be adversely affected by such pests as hickory nut curculios, pecan weevil, and shuck worms, which can cause premature dropping of nuts.

Harvest & Storage

It is best to gather hickory nuts before they fall to the ground, otherwise you will be competing with our wildlife friends. The nuts ripen in September and October. The outer husk on the nuts will start to split and can be removed easily once they are ripe.

To harvest the nuts lay a tarp or old sheet on the ground and shake the tree vigorously. It may take several attempts over the course of a few weeks to gather most of the nuts. Or, you can be daring and wait until after a windy day to pick the nuts up off the ground, but the squirrels may get there first.

Let the nuts cure for about 3 weeks in a protected area before storing them or beginning to eat them raw. Remove the husks, then crack the outer shell of the nuts with a hammer while wrapped in an old towel or with a nutcracker.

The nuts can be stored in a cool place for 3 to 6 months if left in their shells. The shelled nut meats can be kept refrigerated in an airtight plastic bag for up to a week or they can be stored frozen for up to a year.

Culinary Uses

Hickory nuts can be eaten raw out of your hand or added to salads and savory dishes like walnuts. The nut meats are sweet and nutty with a unique flavor. The nuts can be ground up to make flour, candy, and a nut milk like almond milk. They can also be used in baking muffins and cakes like pecans. A porridge can be made by boiling down the ground nut meats and the oil that forms can be skimmed off to make a nut butter.

A complex flavored syrup can be made in 2 different ways from the Shagbark Hickory. The sap can be boiled down to make a syrup like when making maple syrup. In the second method, pieces of the bark are boiled down and simmered to make an amber-colored simple syrup that has a smoky, earthy flavor.

Charcoal made from hickory wood is renowned for its wonderful hickory flavor when smoking meats such as bacon and ham. It is also used when grilling barbeque.

Nutritional Benefits

Hickory nuts are teaming with vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and good carbohydrates. The nuts are full of vitamin A, vitamin C, Vitamin B-6, vitamin B-1, and fatty acids. They are also a good source of potassium, iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and dietary fiber.

These nuts are excellent appetite satisfiers and can enable people to lose weight by fighting off urges to overeat. Their complex carbohydrates provide a steady source of energy and ward off fatigue by preventing sudden insulin fluctuations. The nuts high fiber content improves gastrointestinal health and digestion.

Cardiovascular health can be improved by eating hickory nuts because the nut’s oil balances good and bad cholesterol. They increase good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease bad cholesterol (LDL). Their high fat content and vitamin B1 optimize the function of vital systems such as the cardiovascular, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems. The minerals, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus found in hickory nuts also improve bone density.

Native American Uses

Hickories, just like walnuts, were used in multiple ways by native peoples. The most important use, of course, was as a food source. The word hickory is derived from the Algonquian word, “pawcohiccora”, describing an oily nut milk made from pounding hickory nut kernels that had been boiled. This sweet nut milk was used by the Creek in their hominy and corn cakes.

Many tribes ate the nuts raw as a seasonal treat and others boiled the nuts down to make a cooking oil. The Winnebago, Dakota, and Cherokee boiled down the nuts along with their shells to create a soup. In areas where there were no maples or sycamores, hickory sap was used to make a sweetener and syrup. The Iroquois boiled and ground up the nuts to make baby food and mixed this same mash in with their corn pudding or corn soup. Many tribes ground the nuts to make a nut meal to make different breads. Ground nuts and honey were also used as a breakfast food. The Cherokee, Meskwaki, and many other tribes dried and stored the nuts for winter use.

Native Americans also used hickories medicinally. The Ojibway and Chippewa peoples steamed the young shoots and leaves to make a drug to treat headaches and convulsions. The Cherokee chewed pieces of hickory bark for sore mouth and throat ailments. The Potawatomi applied the liquid from boiled bark to sore muscles and arthritic joints. Other tribes made hickory bark infusions to keep their muscles pliable during hunting and athletic events. The Iroquois mixed hickory sap with bear grease to make a bug repellent.

Tribes had a great amount of uses for hickory bark as fiber for basketry and bindings. The wood was used for hunting supplies, implement handles, and building. The Cherokee utilized the inner bark for chair bottoms and baskets. Whereas the Iroquois and Omaha used the bark to make snowshoe lashings as well as using the wood to make the rims of their snowshoes. Hunting supplies such as arrow shafts, blow gun darts, and bows were made from the strong elastic wood. The Seminoles and Cherokee made barrel hoops, tool handles, and containers from the wood.

Ornamental Uses

Shagbark Hickories have limited uses in most landscape settings. But, because they do make an attractive large shade tree with interesting bark texture and open branching, they can be a unique specimen tree. Hickories are best utilized in parks, or naturalized locations like pastures or at the edge of open woods.

They do not make good lawn or street trees because of their slow growth, leaf litter, and nut production. It is best to plant them well away from buildings, sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots. Falling nuts and nuts on pavement can be hazards as well as their litter can be a landscape maintenance nightmare. Also, the tannins from the nut husks can stain concrete surfaces.

Other Uses

Hickory wood is wonderful as firewood, for charcoal production, and for barbecuing. The wood has a high efficiency level when burned making many BTUs per pound burned. It burns for a long time with little or no smoke. The wood is also prized for its strength, hardness, and resistance to impact.  Hickory wood is used for tool handles, furniture, agricultural implements, gun stocks, baseball bats, and construction timbers.

Hickory nuts are a good source of food for wildlife. Squirrels, chipmunks, bears, foxes, rabbits, field mice, deer, rabbits, turkeys, ducks, and quail feed off the nuts. Bats even live in the bark plates.

American settlers made wagons, wagon wheels, cabin doors, and farming tools from the fine wood. Settlers also made a yellow dye from the inner bark.

Related Varieties & Recommended Varieties

Eleven of the world’s 25 hickory species live in North America. The shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is the most common hickory in the Southeastern US. But there are 4 other common hickory varieties:

Shellbark Hickory (C. laciniosa) – is like the shagbark but is found in wetter soils and has larger nuts. The leaves are also larger and have 7 leaflets with orange twigs. Shellbarks grow 70 to 90 feet tall.

Mockernut Hickory (C. tomentosa) – has 7 to 9 leaflet per leaf. Their nuts are smaller and harder to crack. Mockernut bark is smooth with diamond shaped furrows. They grow 50 to 70 feet tall.

Pignut Hickory (C. glabra) – has 5 to 7 leaflets per leaf and their nuts are much smaller with a bitter astringent aftertaste. Pignuts grow to 50 to 60 feet.

Bitternut Hickory (C. cordiformis) – has 7 to 9 leaflets per leaf and small nuts so bitter that squirrels usually don’t eat them. They grow to 50 to 75 feet.

There are also two other sub-species of the shagbark, Carolina Hickory (C. ovata var. australis) and Southern Shagbark (C. carolinea-septentrionalis).

There are several cultivars of shagbark hickories that have been selected for flavor and cold hardiness over several decades: ‘Grainger’ from Tennessee, ‘Wilcox’ from Ohio, ‘Ben’s Big Sweetie’ from Illinois, and ‘Harold’ from Wisconsin.

Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are also in the same genus with hickories. There is a pecan and hickory cross called a hican. These two trees were crossed for nutmeat size and cold hardiness. Some varieties are ‘Palmer’, ‘Burton’, and ‘Pixley’ that has good flavor and has promise as a landscape tree.

Hazards & Cautions

As mentioned earlier, hickories are messy trees. Because of the amount of leaf litter, nut litter, and staining nut husks, they should not be planted near structures, walkways, or paved areas. Their roots can also break-up concrete and asphalt pavements by heaving.

The nuts can pose a chocking hazard to small children. Also, people with nut allergies should be aware of possible problems.

References & Related Links                                                                                                 

  1. Bacon, Josephine; Clifton, Claire; Conner, David; Fielder, Amy; et al. National Geographic Edible: An Illustration Guide to the World’s Food Plants. Global Book Publishing: Lane Cove, Australia, 2008.
  2. Bennett, Chris. Southeast Foraging. Timber Press: Portland, 2015.
  3. Dirr, Michael A., Heuser, Charles W. The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation: From Seed to Tissue Culture. Varsity Press: Athens, GA, 1987.
  4. Kershner, Bruce; Mathews, Daniel; Nelson, Gil; and Spellenberg, Richard. National Wildlife Federation: Field Guide to Trees of North America. Sterling Publishing: New York, 2008.
  5. Kirkman, L. Katherine, Brown, Claude L., and Leopold, J. Donald. Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide. Timber Press: Portland, 2007.
  6. Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to North American Trees – Eastern Region. Albert A. Knopf: New York, 1980.
  7. McCreary, Rosemary. Taylor’s 50 Best Trees: Easy Plants for More Beautiful Gardens. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1999.
  8. Peterson, Lee. Peterson: Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern & Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Co: New York, 1977.
  9. Russell, Tony. Smithsonian Nature Guide: Trees. Dorling Kindersley: London, 2012.
  10. Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Trees. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2009.


  1. Alpha Nurseries, Inc. – Holland, MI – (269) 857-7804 –
  2. Chief River Nursery – Grafton, WI – (800) 367-9254 –
  3. Cold Stream Farm – Free, Soil – (231) 464-5809 –
  4. Kollar Nursery – Pylesville, MD – (410) 836-0500 –
  5. Native Forest Nursery – Chatsworth, GA – (706) 483-3397 –

March 9, 2021
by jhtalmadge

American Hazelnut

American Hazelnut

(Corylus americana)

One of my favorite trees is Henry Lauder’s Walking Stick or Contorted Filbert (Corylus avellaneContorta’). I love its unusual, gnarled appearance with its crazy cork-screwed branches. It shares the genus Corylus with 2 native relatives living in North America: the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) and beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta). This group of trees is called hazels or filberts (genus Corylus) and is comprised of about 12 species of trees and shrubs worldwide.

Corylus is one of 5 genera of deciduous trees of the Betulaceae family or birch family in North America. The other four genera in the Betulaceae are Alders (Alnus), Hornbeams (Carpinus), Hophornbeams (Ostrya), and Birch (Betula).   There is no known Champion tree for this species.


The American hazelnut is usually found as a small colony-forming, rounded, multi-stemmed shrub, but sometimes it appears as a small, single-trunked tree. They grow to 8 to 10 feet in height on average with a spread of up to 15 feet. These deciduous plants are moderately long lived. Their leaves are single with doubly serrate margins and are broad-ovate to broad-elliptical or heart-shaped in general terms. The leaves usually measure 2.5” to 6” long by 1.5” to 2.5” wide and are dark green in the summer turning to an unattractive mottled yellow green in the fall. Leaves are alternately arranged with short ½” hairy petioles. Hazelnuts are multi-stemmed with dense ascending branches. Twigs are dark brownish-grey and hairy.

Hazelnut flowers bloom in late winter to early spring long before their leaves appear. Both male and female flowers are catkins. The male catkins are 1.5” to 3” long, drooping green to yellowish-brown inflorescences on short brown stalks. The female flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, carmine-red, sea urchin-shaped catkins.

The fruit is an edible nut. The nut is borne in a husk of modified leaves called an involucre. The 1” fused husk is pubescent and deeply toothed. These involucres can appear singularly or in clusters with up to 12 in a cluster. The rounded ½” nuts have brown shells with a slightly flattened side. Their shells are thicker and harder than the commercially grown varieties of hazelnut. The white to beige kernel or seed inside is deeply lobed.

The outer bark of the American hazelnut is light grey to light copper brown. The outer bark exfoliates on mature specimens revealing the yellow to light orange inner bark.

Hazelnuts do not have a deep taproot like most nut trees. Their roots are shallower and more fibrous, which make them easier to transplant.

Identifying Factors

The four best identifying factors of the American Hazelnut are:

  • America hazelnuts usually grow in clumps as rounded shrubs.
  • They have heart-shaped serrated leaves.
  • Their leaves and twigs have a wintergreen scent when crushed.
  • In winter, they can be easily identified by their long, yellowish-brown catkins dangling from their branches.

Habitat /Zone /Range

American hazelnuts are usually found growing at the edges of woodlands or wetlands, along fence rows, as an understory tree in forests, in uplands, valleys, and prairies. They prefer stony, coarse, well-drained, loamy soil on hillsides. They stretch from Zone 2 through Zone 9, but flourish in Zones 5 to 8. They are found growing in an expansive range from Saskatchewan eastward to Maine, southward to Georgia, westward across the Southeast to Oklahoma, and northward to North Dakota.

General Culture

Hazelnuts are a relatively low maintenance, easy crop to grow. They thrive in full sun, but will tolerate deep shade. Nut production is directly tied to the amount of sun they receive, so try to pick a sunny location for good nut production. These trees are adaptable, tolerating many soil types and pH levels, but they prefer a light, loamy soil with a pH of 6.5.

Plant in fall or early spring. Space the plants 3 to 5 feet apart if forming a hedge or 15 to 20 feet apart if starting an orchard.

Irrigation & Fertilization

Mature hazels rarely need to be watered. Only during times of drought or in the extreme heat of summer will hazelnuts need some irrigation. Water at a rate of 1” per week when irrigation is required.

High nitrogen fertilizers should be avoided, and instead organic composts or mulches should be used to fertilize hazelnut trees. Nut production can be reduced if these plants are kept too lush with high nitrogen inorganic fertilizers. Thus, low nitrogen organic fertilizers like mushroom compost, manures, and fish emulsions will supply enough nutrition for your trees. Only if your trees are growing at less than 6” per year and exhibiting yellowed or small leaves, will it be necessary to apply a small amount of commercial fertilizer. Do not apply any kind of fertilizer after mid-August or it will make your trees more susceptible to cold damage.

Pruning & Training

American hazels want to grow naturally as thicket forming large shrubs. You will have two form options either as a large shrub or as a small tree. Of course, the tree form option will take a little more effort.

To train your hazel into a vase-shaped, multi-stemmed, small tree, prune the young plant to a single trunk with 3 to 6 main branches when it is three years old. Dig up and remove root suckers on a regular basis to maintain a thicket-free area around the base of tree, this will also make it easier to harvest the nuts each year. Regularly remove diseased or damaged branches through the year as the tree grows.

For a shrub form, initially prune the plant to 3 main trunks when it is 3 years old. Then, cut out cross branches and older wood each winter to stimulate new growth. This open form allows more sun to penetrate the center of the canopy, which will over time cause the tree to produce more nuts.


American hazelnuts are monoecious, which means both male and female flowers develop on the same tree and many times on the same branch. Hazelnuts are partially self-fertile to fully self-fertile and are wind pollinated. To have dependable pollination and good nut production it is best to plant 2 to 5 trees. If you choose to use another variety of hazelnut or filbert as a co-pollinator, be careful that the two varieties are compatible and bloom at the same time.


There are several methods to propagate hazelnuts such as cuttings, grafting, layering, and tissue culture, but the best method of propagation for the American hazelnut is by seed.

Propagating hazelnuts by seed can take two different forms. Seeds can be planted outdoors in 1-gallon pots in the fall or held indoors in a refrigerator for 3 to 6 months to accomplish cold stratification. First, gather the nuts in September as the husks begin to turn brown. Dry the nuts indoor until the husks begin to open. Remove the shriveled husks and drop the nuts into a bucket of water to test for any bad seed. The diseased or non-viable nuts (seeds) will float.

 You can select 1 of 2 seed propagation options. The nuts can be planted immediately into 1-gallon pots of sterilized seedling potting mix and left outdoors all winter to naturally go through cold stratification or held indoors for artificial stratification. Both options will benefit from making a small hole in the top side of each nutshell with a fine-toothed file, this practice is called scarification and will promote the germination process.

In the other seed option, dry the nuts and place them in a paper bag. Keep the nuts in a refrigerator set at 40-degrees Fahrenheit till at least November. Soak the seeds in water for 4 days to rehydrate them, then place the seeds into a closed container of moist sand. Put them back in the refrigerator. In February, take the container of sand and seeds back out of the refrigerator. Check the seeds each day for the next 10 days, each day, removing the newly germinated seeds. Plant each sprouted seed 1 to 2 inches deep in a 1-gallon pot of a sterilized seedling potting mix. Repot your tree seedling again in 6 months into 3-gallon pots and field-plant the young trees the following spring.

When using cuttings as the method of propagation, the cutting should be taken in late May to early June when the tree is actively growing. Select tip cutting, 4-to 6-inches long and up, half the diameter of a pencil with 1 to 2 leaves present. Dip the cuttings into a 1,000 to 2,000 ppm solution of indole butyric acid (IBA) and stick them in a seedling flat of pure perlite or a well-drained seedling mix. Give the cuttings bottom heat of 70- to 72-degrees Fahrenheit. Mist them evenly on a regular basis, but do not over water them. Overwatering can cause rot and decline. The cutting should be rooted in 4 to 6 weeks. Harden them off in a shaded area outside, then plant up the young trees into 1-gallon pots.

Simple layering is another good way to propagate hazelnuts. This can be accomplished by taking a flexible lower branch and scratching off the bark on the lower side about 10 to 12 inches from the tip. Take a shepherd’s hook tent stake or landscape staple and clip the section with exposed bark into the ground. Cover with 2 to 3 inches of soil and leave 6 to 9 inches of the tip exposed. It may take a season or two before the layered cutting develops roots and can be detached from the parent tree, then plant the layered section into a 1-gallon pot. These young trees can be shifted up into larger pots or field planted the next growing season.

Grafting is another method of propagating hazelnuts. Cleft-grafting and budding have both been successful, but budded plants seem to have more vigor than grafted plants. American hazelnuts are sometimes used as the rootstock of commercial hazelnut varieties.

Little research has been done on the micropropagation or tissue culture of native hazelnuts.

Pests & Disease

Like many fruit and nut trees, hazelnuts are attacked by many pests and diseases. But, being such resilient trees, few are ever serious enough to damage nut crops or kill the tree. Pests such as aphids, weevils, mites, Japanese leaf hoppers, bagworms, filbert worms, caterpillars, and scale insects can present a threat to hazelnut trees. Most of these pests can be managed by spraying dormant oil or fruit tree spray twice a year. Also, it is a good practice to rake up nuts left on the ground at the end of each fall to limit worms and weevils the next year. Many creatures such as squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, and other birds can consume your hazelnut crop.

A host of diseases from bacterial to fungus and viral can infect your hazelnuts. Bacterial leafspots, blights, crown galls, cankers, and fungal leafspots like anthracnose, powdery mildew, rusts, and viral hazelnut mosaic can pose problems, most are just nuisances. The most concerning malady for hazelnuts is root rot.

Common Problems

Extended periods of saturated soil after heavy rains can cause wet feet or root rot in hazelnuts. Full sun in the heat of summer can cause sun scald damage especially on younger plants. Catkin blast or deformed catkins and empty nuts shells (blanks) can occur, neither of which have a conclusive cause.

Harvest & Storage

Most American hazelnuts start producing nuts when 2 to 3 years old, but may be 10 years old before reaching maturity. The nuts ripen in September and October. The trees normally bare heavier in alternate years. A mature tree will produce 20 pounds of nuts per year on average.

 The nuts are ready to harvest when the husks turn yellow and the nuts can be easily pushed around in the husks to free them. It is best to pick the nuts before they fall to the ground and are lost to wildlife. The nuts may be picked by hand or a padded stick can be used to shake them from the branches. With either method, an old sheet or tarp can be placed under the trees to catch the nuts.

The nuts need to be fully ripe and dried to store properly. The nuts may be dried outside spread out on newspaper in the sun for 7 to 10 days or dried indoors for 14 to 21 days. A food dehydrator can also be used. If you choose to dry them outdoors, be sure to cover them with wire screens to protect the nuts from marauding squirrels. The nuts are sufficiently dried once the kernels become crunchy. The kernels can be stored in or out of their shells. They will store for up to a year in a cool dark place or for a couple years if packed in salt.

Culinary Uses

Even though American hazelnuts are not as large as European filberts, they make up for it with a milder, sweeter flavor than commercially grown varieties. They can be eaten raw or roasted by the handful and used in numerous ways in cooking and baking. Chopped hazelnuts can be used as a savory topping on salads or to add an extra punch to deserts such as ice cream and cakes.

A flour made from grinding the nuts can be utilized as a basic ingredient in cakes instead of wheat flour. Nut butter can be made and used in spreads for toast or in frostings for cakes. Gourmet pasta sauces sometimes employ hazelnuts because their flavor pairs well with lemon and spinach. An edible oil made from crushed hazelnuts is used in salad dressings or as an ingredient in cooking. Chocolate coated or sugar and cinnamon covered hazelnuts make great party snacks.

Hazelnut wood is a preferred wood to use for smoking cheeses and meats.

Nutritional Benefits & Medicinal Uses

Hazelnuts are full of minerals, vitamins, protein, antioxidants, healthy fats, and dietary fiber. These nutrient dense nuts are rich in numerous minerals such as, iron, potassium, copper, magnesium, manganese, selenium, zinc, and calcium. They are also a good source of B-complex vitamins and vitamin E. These protein rich nuts are useful in building muscle. The nuts are 50% to 70% oil, which contain many healthy fatty acids and carbohydrates so they should be eaten in moderation. The dietary fiber found in hazelnuts helps prevent constipation and possibly assists in lowering the risk of some forms of cancer.

Hazelnuts are good inflammation fighters because they contain high levels of vitamin E and other antioxidants. These nuts are especially useful in combating inflammation in the cardiovascular and nervous system. The monosaturated fatty acids contained in hazelnuts help reduce inflammation in the heart and circulatory system promoting heart health and reducing the risk of heart attack. Consuming hazelnuts can also assist in lowering bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. The same antioxidants and vitamin E are also helpful in protecting against disease by boosting the immune system. These antioxidants also protect the body from sun damage thus improving the quality of hair and skin. Hazelnut oil, which is high in vitamin E, is also an excellent moisturizer for the skin and keeps the skin supple.

Hazelnuts make a great snack for diabetics since they aid in regulating blood pressure and lower blood sugar levels. Regular consumption of hazelnuts can also have a calming effect on the mind and improve short-term memory. These nuts may also slow the aging of the brain.

Eating hazelnuts in moderation can also assist in weight loss and weight management by boosting the metabolism. The thiamin and folate in these nuts are especially helpful in promoting healthy metabolism.

Native American Uses

The American hazelnut tree was used for fiber, medicine, and food by many tribes. Many tribes used the straight root suckers for fish net hoops and arrow shafts. The Ojibwa and Meswaki utilized the twigs and branches to make baskets, brooms, brushes, and drumsticks.

Hazels were an important medicinal for many native peoples. The Iroquois formulated a decoction of hazelnut roots to treat toothaches. The Chippewa made an analgesic preparation by mixing hazelnut bark with charcoal. Skin medications for hives, cuts, and abrasions were made from the inner bark of hazels by the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Ojibwa. The Cherokee and Iroquois also created a bark decoction as a remedy for summer sickness or stomach viruses.

Many tribes gathered hazelnuts for fresh eating. The Menominee produced a nut milk, and the Dakota made a nut soup from hazelnuts. The Cherokee and Iroquois boiled or mashed nutmeats to save for winter and baked hazelnuts in breads.

Other uses for hazelnuts were also found. The Ojibwa mixed hazelnuts and butternut hulls to produce a dark black dye. The Iroquois, who had so many uses for hazelnuts, compounded bear grease and hazelnut oil together to make a mosquito repellant, as well as a hair tonic.

Ornamental Uses

Hazelnuts are best used at the edges of your property in informal or naturalized areas where they can spread as an understory tree/shrub. Hazels can also be utilized as a screen at the back of shrub borders or as a hedgerow or windbreak.  But in most cases, they are too large and ungainly to be drawn into most contemporary landscapes.

Other Uses

The nuts, foliage, as well as catkins of the American hazelnut are a good food source for wildlife such as deer, turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers, and rabbits. Turkey especially like to nibble on the catkins as a winter treat. The foliage has been used as livestock fodder since the times of the settlers. Settlers also used the hazelnut stems to make wattle and daub constructed walls on their frontier houses. Basket weavers have utilized the strong, flexible branches for basketwork for centuries. The pliable branches are also used for fencing. Dousers use the forked branches to make divining rods to source water.

Recommended Varieties

There has been little research into new varieties of the American Hazelnut since the nuts are small and considered inferior to commercially grown varieties. But, there is one hybridized variety, Corylus americana ‘Winkler’, which is a fully self-fertile cultivar that produces larger nuts and is more productive than most native types.

Hazards & Cautions

Because of their small size, hazelnuts pose a choking hazard to small children. Hazelnut pollen can also trigger hay fever (allergic rhinitis) in some sensitive people. But, the most dangerous hazard is to people with nut allergies. These allergies can range from being as mild as causing coughs or swollen eyes to respiratory arrest and death.


The American hazelnut, although smaller than the commercially grown hazelnut varieties, has a sweeter and more intense flavor than its well-known relatives. Having many health benefits and outstanding flavor, this little known native also has potential to become a commercially successful variety. In the meantime, it is great for foraging for those in the know. So, go out in a forest near you and mark or GPS plot some local trees. They will be the easiest to find in the late winter or early spring with their long dangling catkins. This way you will be ready for the harvest next fall. Or, add a few to a naturalized area in your landscape or add them to your own food forest.

References & Related Links

  • Biggs, Matthew; McVicar, Jekka; and Flowerdew, Bob. Vegetables, Herbs, and Fruit: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2013.
  • Creasy, Rosalind. Edible Landscaping. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2010.
  • Dirr, Michael A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing Co.,1990.
  • Dirr, Michael A. and Heuser, Charles W. The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation: From Seed to Tissue Culture. Athens, GA: Varsity Press, 1987.
  • Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.
  • Kirkman, L. Katherine; Brown, Claude L.; Leopold, Donald J. Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.
  • McClure, Susan and Reich, Lee. Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Fruits and Berries. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1996.
  • Mellicamp, Larry. Native Plants of the Southeast. Portland: Timber Press, 2014.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
  • Russell, Tony and Cutler, Catherine. Trees: An Illustrated Identifier and Encyclopedia. London: Anness Publishing, 2004.
  • Whittingham, Jo. Backyard Harvest: A Year-round Guide to Growing Fruits and Vegetables. New York: Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2011.
  • Viertel, Arthur, T. Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Pictorial Guide to the Ornamental Woody Plants of the Northern United States. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1970.


  • Edible Landscaping – (434) 361-9134  361 Spirit Ridge Lane                  Afton, VA 229020

  • One Green World – (877) 353-4028 6469 SE 134th                   Portland, OR   97236

  • Rhora’s Nut Farm & Nursery – (905) 899-3508 33083 Wills Rd.                                                  Wainfleet ON LOS 1VO Canada

  • Willis Orchard Company– (866) 586-6283 200 McCormick Rd. SW                                  Cartersville, GA   30120

  • Raintree Nursery – (800) 391-8892 Morton, WA   98356



May 18, 2020
by jhtalmadge

Southern Crabapple

Southern Crabapple

(Malus angustifolia)

Although, the Southern or Narrow-leaf crabapple is not a common tree, there are many scattered across the Southeast. While not as showy in spring or fall as some of its hybrid relatives, it is still an attractive tree when in bloom or bearing fruit. This crabapple does have many things going for it–great spring color, edible fruit, good fall color and colorful fruit that persists on the trees well into winter.

There are 25 species in the Malus genus around the world. Of those, 4 species of crabapples are native to North America. The Southern, Sweet, and Prairie crabapples grow in the Eastern United States and the Oregon crabapple grows on the West Coast. Southern crabapples are found as moderate-growing small trees or thicket-forming large shrubs like wild plums. The current champion tree resides in Montgomery, Maryland and is 45 feet tall with a 40-foot spread.


Southern crabapples usually grow to 20 to 25 feet tall with a 20 to 25-foot spread. They have short trunks with rounded open crowns.  Their simple, alternate leaves are ovate to narrowly elliptical with finely toothed margins and blunt tips. The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Leaves can be slightly hairy when young, but hairless, dull dark green on top and paler underneath when mature. In fall, the foliage turns yellow. Twigs of the southern crabapple are brown, spur-like and may have thorny tips. The twigs may be hairy, but usually are not. Branches are dense, broadly spreading and rigid. The thin, gray brown to reddish-gray bark is furrowed into narrow scaly ridges.

The 1 to 1.5-inch flowers appear on long stalks as the leaves start to unfurl in late April to early May. The deep pink flower buds are borne in clusters of 3 to 6. The fragrant five-petaled flowers turn lighter pink when open and then fade to pale white as they age.

The yellowish-green fruit of the southern crabapple are 1 inch to 1.5 inches and are a rounded apple-shape. Horticulturists define a crabapple as a tree in the Malus genus with fruit that are less than 2 inches in diameter. The crabapples ripen in late summer to early fall.

Identifying Factors:

The best identifying factors for the native southern crabapple are as follows: 1) The small narrow leaves with crenate margins are usually more than twice as long as wide and have rounded tips. 2) Twigs usually appear without true thorns but can be spine-like. 3) May exhibit a cedar-apple rust infection.      4) The fruit are yellowish-green and have slightly pointed at the tip.

Habitat / Range/ Zone:

Southern crabapples are found in thickets along fence rows, at the borders of woodlands, in old fields, in remote areas, beside the banks of streams, at the lower slopes of hills, or in moist valleys. They usually are found growing at low altitudes below 2,000 feet elevation. These trees range in a large area in the United States from northern Florida, northward to Maryland and New Jersey, westward to Illinois and Missouri, southward to Arkansas and eastern Texas and on eastward to Alabama. Southern crabapples flourish in USDA Hardiness Zones from Zone 4 to Zone 8.

General Culture:

Southern Crabapples are easily grown in full sun and will tolerate partial shade. But they will need at least 6 hours of full sun per day to thrive. Crabapples prefer moist, well-drained, sandy loam soils. Soils that are acid to slightly alkaline with a pH of 5.0 to 6.5. Avoid planting in wet sites where water is prone to ponding. Crabapples do not like wet feet, nor do they like to be planted in areas with high humidity. They do have good drought tolerance and high heat tolerance with marginal tolerance to salt spray. Crabapples are more cold hardy and longer lived than most stone fruit trees such as peaches, and southern crabapples are especially cold hardy. They are small in stature, but still need ample space to spread out. Space them on at least 12-foot centers if planting multiple trees or planting an orchard.

Irrigation & Fertilization:

Young crabapple trees need plenty of water in order to produce strong roots, grow branches and leaves then eventually produce fruit. After planting your young tree, form a tree well around the base and water it in completely through the root ball. Water the tree about an inch once a week until late October unless rainfall is adequate. The next spring it should be well established and need no additional irrigations. Mature trees can survive with normal rainfall and will not require supplementary irrigation unless there is a drought situation.

Common granular, non-organic, 20-10-10 fertilizer is adequate for crabapples. Do not put any fertilizer in the hole when planting. About a month after planting, apply 3 ounces of fertilizer around the young tree. Spread the fertilizer evenly in a 2-foot circle around the tree, being careful not to get it any closer than 6 inches from the trunk. Apply another 3 ounces of fertilizer in late July or early August. Do not spread fertilizer any later than August or the tree will become more susceptible to winter damage. The next year, make 3 applications of 20-10-10 fertilizer: an early spring application, a late spring application after fruit set, and a mid-summer application. Each time spread the fertilizer evenly 6 inches from the trunk out to the drip line of the tree. Continue this program until the tree has been planted 3 years. At this point, if the tree has been putting on at least 10 to 12 inches of growth per year, cut back to two 6-ounce applications per year.  Start doing soil samples every other year to monitor soil pH and N-P-K fertilization levels. Once the tree is 6 years old, it may be possible to switch to a 21-0-0 or 10-10-10 fertilizer depending on your N-P-K levels. After trees have been heavily pruned, use a lighter fertilizer the first application after pruning.

Pruning & Training:

Southern crabapples can be grown as a large weedy shrub or as a small tree with a central leader. To grow it as a large shrub do not do any major pruning other than eliminating crossing branches and water sprouts. Allow it to form a large thicket as it would do naturally in the wild.

When growing this tree as a central leader small tree, select the primary leader once planted. Prune out the other trunks and stake up what will be your primary trunk. Clip off shoots and branches to give the young tree a broad conical shape. Also, remove any water sprouts or suckers which are a common problem for these trees. In summer, remove crossing branches and any damaged or diseased limbs. Continue cutting suckers as soon as they appear through the growing season. The next spring before the tree leaf out, lightly shear the outer branch tips to promote more lateral branching and a broad conical form. After several years, cut out the tip of the central leader once the tree has reached its desired height. Mature crabapples seldom need pruning other than occasionally cutting out water sprouts and suckers. Cut suckers off as low to the ground as possible to discourage regrowth.


Southern crabapples are self-fertile. Honeybees, bumble bees, and butterflies are responsible for most of their pollination. Their flowers are hermaphroditic, containing both male and female reproductive parts within the same flower. Crabapples are such excellent producers of pollen that they are often planted randomly in apple orchards to aide in pollination.


One of the easiest methods of propagation is to collect seeds from the fruit during the fall and winter. Give the cleaned seeds at least 3 months of moist cold treatment at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a refrigerator while bagged in a damp paper towel. Once dormancy is broken, sow the seeds the next spring. Stratified seeds usually germinate easily in about 1 to 2 months.

Another propagation practice is to dig up root sprouts in late winter and plant them in containers in a greenhouse. This method is unreliable because the rooting of the cuttings and viability varies widely from tree to tree. Frequently, only 50% of the cuttings survive using this method.

A third method is to root softwood cuttings taken in early summer; this method has an 80% success rate. But trees propagated in this way take longer to mature and produce fruit. Yet another crabapple propagation method is to graft cuttings onto another crabapple such as ‘Dolgo’ or an apple rootstock.

Pests & Diseases:

The pests most likely to attack crabapples are aphids, spider mites, scale insects, tent caterpillars, borers, and Japanese beetles. Most of these are easily controlled with common pesticides available at garden centers and feed stores.

Southern crabapples have good disease tolerance but are affected by many of the same maladies as apple trees. The 4 most common diseases to which crabapples are susceptible are to apple scab, fire blight, canker, and cedar apple rust. The trees are also especially vulnerable to powdery mildew and honey fungus in humid areas. Trees planted near cedar trees are extremely prone to cedar-apple rust since cedars are the secondary host to the disease.

General Problems:

Southern crabapples do not do well planted in areas that are subject to flooding. They do not like to have wet feet for extended periods of time. Crabapples are also sensitive to high humidity. Since most varieties of crabapples are extremely susceptible to cedar-apple rust, it best not to plant them near cedars or junipers.

Harvest & Storage:

Harvest the fruit when it has colored up fully and is easily pulled off the tree. You may leave late-maturing crabapples on the tree if the temperatures do not go below 28-degrees Fahrenheit and freeze the fruit. Use any damaged or bruised crabapples immediately. Store the unblemished fruit at 30- to 35- degrees Fahrenheit with 90% humidity for up to several months. Remove any rotting fruit from time to time. Do not store your crabapples near potatoes since potatoes emit a gas that will make the crabapples ripen faster.

Culinary Uses:

The fruit of the southern crabapple is too hard and tart to be enjoyed raw, but there are many ways to prepare them. First off, you can use them for most any cooking or baking recipe that calls for apples. Once cooked, they lose their sour, astringent flavor. Their fruit is full of pectin and make an excellent clear amber jelly. The crabapples are such a good source of pectin that they are often added to other jellies. The fruit can be made into crabapple butter or preserved as pickled or spiced crabapples. Juice, cider, wine, syrup, and vinegar can also be produced from crabapples.

The easiest way to use the crabapples is to put them through a food mill instead of trying to peel and core the tiny fruit. Chefs use the sourness of crabapples in stuffing, sauces, and relishes to offset or balance out other savory or sweet foods. Green crabapple wood is utilized for smoking fish and meats. Floral infusions can be made from their fragrant apple-like flowers.

Nutrients & Health Benefits:

Crabapples, just like their larger cousins, apples, are loaded with many vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Their fruit contains vitamins such as Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and niacin. Calcium, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium are some of the minerals which are responsible for crabapples many health benefits. These little nutritional powerhouses are 85% water, rich in antioxidants, dietary fiber, several phytonutrients, and flavonoids.

The antioxidant properties of crabapples can lower the risk of heart disease by counteracting the effects of fats in the blood stream. These same antioxidants protect the body from conditions like arthritis and rheumatism, which are caused by oxidative stress. The flavonoid, quercetin, in crabapples and apples lessens inflammation in blood vessels. Epicatechin, a polyphenol, aides in reducing blood pressure in the body. Crabapple juice also equalizes blood sugar levels thus avoiding diabetes.

Being rich in dietary fiber, crabapples clean the digestive tract, increase metabolism, and facilitate good bowel movements. The abundant pectin in crabapples acts as a prebiotic which assists probiotics in the intestines and thus increases the assimilation of nutrients.

Brain function is supported by antioxidants in crabapples and apples, which protect brain cells from neurodegenerative diseases. Crabapples and apples both boost the amount of acetylcholine in the brain which enhances brain function in the form of problem-solving skills, focus, short-term memory as well as preventing dementia.

The ascorbic acid in crabapples aids in collagen production, which benefits the structure of the skin. Crabapple juice increases blood circulation thus toning the skin. The skin is also kept healthy by the antioxidants in crabapples which assist in cell restoration and cell formation.

Vitamin A in crabapples strengthens and improves eyesight, while their high vitamin C levels boost the immune system. The juice of crabapples is also a natural detoxifier for the kidneys, liver, and spleen. All in all, crabapples are truly a superfood.

Native American Uses:

The Cherokee made infusions of crabapple bark to treat gallstones and hemorrhoids. A similar bark infusion was taken for dry or sore throat and a mouthwash was made for oral sores. A cold infusion of bark was made to be used as an eye wash for tired or infected eyes.

Small sun-dried cakes of crabapples were made by the Cherokee to be saved and used later in cooking. Clear jellies were also made from the fruit.

Ornamental Uses:

Unlike its hybrid cousins, the southern crabapple is not best used in a formal manicured landscape application. It works better as a small, medium-textured tree planted at the border of a property or in another natural settings like a park. It has the seasonal attractions of fragrant pink blooms in spring, reliable fall color, and persistent decorative fruit lasting well into winter. It’s small asymmetrical form contrasts well with other upright elements in any landscape.

Other Uses:

Crabapples have a heavy wood with a closed grain that is ideal for making tool handles, knife scales, and other small wooden articles. Their wood has also been used as firewood. Southern crabapples are used as rootstock for other apple varieties to give them more cold hardiness. They are also planted sporadically around apple orchards as pollinators for the apple trees. A mix of 15% to 20% crabapples in the orchard is recommended.

The fruit of crabapples is an excellent food source for wildlife such as deer, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, skunks, turkeys, quail, and other small birds. These trees are also an early source of food for bees and other native pollinators.

Related and Recommended Varieties:

  The three other Malus species in North America are the prairie crabapple (Malus ioensis), the sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria), and the Oregon crabapple (Malus fusca). The prairie crabapple is a small tree or shrub usually under 25-feet tall that forms thickets. They are found mainly in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. They can be differentiated from the other native varieties since their leaves are hairy underneath and less lobed. The sweet crabapple appears as a shrub or small tree under 25-feet tall often forming colonies. The sweet crabapple is found primarily in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Their wider leaves are more lobed, and their spur twigs have thorns at the end. The Oregon crabapple is found as a shrub or small tree usually under 30-feet tall, often multi-trunked and thicket forming. Oregon crabapples have small one-half inch, yellow-red, oval fruit. They are found along the coast in northern California, Oregon and Washington.

There are also over 1,000 hybrid crabapples available worldwide. Most of these hybrids have been derived from either the Japanese crabapple (Malus floribunda) or the Siberian crabapple (Malus baccata). Some of the best varieties for eating and ornamental varieties are listed below:

White Blooming:

  1. ‘Callaway’- white blooms, ½” to 1” maroon fruit, dull yellow fall foliage, 15’-25’ height x 15’-20’ spread, one of the best for the South because of its heat and humidity tolerance.
  2. ‘Centennial’ – single white flowers, nearly 2” diameter bright red fruit, Yellow/orange fall foliage, 8’-12’ height x 8’-12’ spread, great for cooking and fresh eating.
  3. ‘Sugar Tyme’- sugar white blooms with ½” red fruit, fall foliage is mottled yellow, green, and orange, grows 15-18’ height x 12-18’ spread, best for the South.

Pink Blooming:

  1. ‘Indian Magic’ – deep rosy pink flowers, red-orange 5/8” fruit, apricot-orange fall foliage, grows 15-20’ height x 10-20’ spread, good fruit display.
  2. ‘Whitney’ – pink turning to white blooms as they mature, large 1 1/2” to nearly 2” red fruit that are sweeter than most crabapples, drab yellow fall foliage, 12’-15’ height x 12’-15’ spread, good for fresh eating.
  3. ’Adams’ – semi-double, deep pink flowers, carmine red 1/2” to 3/4” fruit, orange-red fall foliage, grows 15’-20’ height x 15’-20’ spread, with good disease resistance.

Red Blooming:

  1. ‘Prairiefire’ – coral red flowers, purple-red ½” fruit, yellow-orange fall foliage, 15’-20’ height x 15’-20’ spread.
  2. ‘Liset’- rose red flowers, dark maroon red ½” – ¾” fruit, purple foliage in spring, peach-colored fall foliage, 15’-20’ height x 15’-20’ spread, attractive ornamental variety.

Oher Varieties:

  1. ‘Red Jade’- white flowers turning to pink, red ½” fruit, yellow/green/orange mixed fall foliage, 15’-20’ height x 20’-30’ spread, weeping habit.
  2. ‘Molten Lava’- pale pink flowers fading to white, 1” red-orange fruit, orange/red fall foliage, 12’-15’ height x 12’-15’ spread, semi-weeping form, and good disease resistance.
  3. ‘Dolgo’- early white flowers, 1¼” bright red fruit with red flesh, bright yellow fall foliage, 35’- 40’ height x 30’ spread, sweeter fruit are good for cooking, excellent disease resistant.

Hazards & Cautions:

The seeds, like with many pome fruits, contain cyanogenic glycosides which are precursors to cyanide, so eating the seeds is best avoided. The branches of crabapples have thorn-like spurs that can cause injury when maintaining the area around the trees. Planting crabapples near sidewalks, patios, outdoor rooms, and other paved areas is not advised since the fruit dropping can cause surfaces to become slick and pose a falling hazard.

References & Related Links:

  • Brown, Claud L., Kirkman, L.K., and Leopold, D.J. Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.
  • Cornell Editorial Team. “Tree Fruits”. Cornell Publications. 3 December 2015. 12 April 2020.
  • Crockett, James U. The Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening: Trees. New York: Time-Life Books, 1972.
  • Dirr, Michael A. Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland: Timber Press, 2002.
  • Dirr, Michael A. and Heuser, Charles W. Jr. The Reference Manuel of Woody Plant Propagation: From See to Tissue Culture. Athens, GA: Varsity Press, Inc., 1987.
  • Dirr, Michael A. and Warren, Keith S. The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens. Portland: Timber Press, 2019.
  • Halfacre, R. Gordon and Shawcroft, Anne R. Landscape Plants of the Southeast. Raleigh, NC: Spark’s Press, 1989.
  • Hill, Lewis and Perry, Leonard. The Fruit Gardener’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts in the Home Garden. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2011.
  • Kershner, Bruce; Matthews, Daniel and Nelson, Gil. National Wildlife Federation: Field Guide to Trees of North America. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008.
  • Kourik, Robert. Smith & Hawkins -The Hands-on Gardener: Pruning. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1997.
  • Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North America – Eastern Region. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
  • Logsdon, Gene. Organic Orcharding – A Grove of Trees to Live In. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981.
  • McClure, Susan and Reich, Lee. Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Fruits and Berries. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1996.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
  • Morton Arboretum Editorial Team. “Trees & Plants: Crabapple” Morton Arboretum: The Champion of Trees. March 2020. 20 April 2020.
  • Nagdeve, Meenakshi. “11 Incredible Health Benefits of Apples”. 28 February 2020. 27 April 2020. <>.
  • Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Trees. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
  • Schrock, Denny. Ortho Books: The Complete Guide to Trees & Shrubs. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Publishing Group, 2004.

December 7, 2019
by jhtalmadge

American Beech

American Beech

Fagus grandifolia


The beech tree is of such great significance to humankind that the etymological derivation of two common English words “to eat” and “book” are inexorably connected to it. Beech leaves and beechnuts (mast) were an important food source for both livestock and people alike in ancient times. The ancient Greek word for beech was phegos, which is related to the word phagein “to eat”. Phegos led to the Latin word fagus, which became the botanical genus name for beech trees because these trees are edible. The American beech is in the genus Fagus which is in the family Fagaceae.

Before the advent of paper scrolls, Germanic societies in northern Europe scratched early letters (manuscripts) on beech bark. Later, written manuscripts were preserved on thin beech tablets and bound together with beech wood boards. The Proto-Germanic word bokiz for “beech” became bok for “book”; this gave rise to the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word boc for a written document, which in time became the modern English word book.

In several Germanic languages, the word for book and beech are still closely connected. For example, in modern German buche is beech and buch is book. The two words are even more similar in Swedish where bok is beech and bok is also the word for book.

One of the most common trees in the eastern North American forest is the American beech tree. It is an impressive tree with broad-spreading branches that sometimes reach the ground. Beech trees are slow growing and long lived. They usually take 40 years to mature enough to produce seeds and can live to 300 years or more. The beech grows to 50- to 80-feet high with a spread of 40- to 70-feet and can have 2- to 3-foot in caliper. The current champion tree is 120 feet tall.

There are 10 species of true beech trees and all grow in temperate regions in Europe, Asia, and North America. The American beech is the only beech tree native to North America.

"A small beech tree holding its leaves through winter". Photo by David Moore

“A small beech tree holding its leaves through winter”. Photo by David Moore


The American beech is a large deciduous tree with a dense, rounded, dome-like crown, broad-spreading habit with a tall straight trunk. The 3- to 6-inch long by 2-inch wide leaves are simple, ovate to elliptic in shape, and tapering to a pointed tip with sharply toothed margins. The glossy, dark green leaves are paler green underneath with tufts of hair along the mid-rib. The 9 to 15 pairs of veins are very distinct and run parallel to one another from mid-rib to the margin giving them a rippled appearance. Leaf buds are slender, cigar-shaped, and 1-inch long ending in a sharp pointed tip. Young stems are glossy with a reddish tint and grow in a zig-zag pattern. Older stems are smooth with a mottled gray color. The long- spreading branches grow horizontal and sometimes with their tips reaching the ground. The thin slate-gray to silver-gray bark is distinctively smooth most of its life and is ideal for carving. The male (staminate) flowers are ¾-inch to 1-inch long spiny clusters on 1 ½-inch to 2-inch stalks. The minute, reddish-green female (pistilate) flowers are ¼-inch long hairy and appear on 1-inch long stalks. Both flowers lack petals and emerge in early spring.  The fruit are small greenish orange to brown round burs covered with short spines.  When they ripen in September or October, the fruit will split open along four seams revealing 1 to 4 beechnuts inside. These yellow to reddish brown edible nuts are 1/4 to 3/8 inch long and conically shaped with winged edges. The shallow fibrous root system of the America beech has a suckering habit and will commonly send up root shoots in a colony around the parent tree.

Beech Tree by Karen M. Johnson

 Beech Tree by Karen M. Johnson

Identifying Factors

Some common ways to identify the American beech tree are as follows: 1) the light brown leaves remain on the trees through most of the winter (marcescent), 2) the large trees have smooth light gray bark similar to an elephant’s hide, 3) the leaf buds are long and pointy, 4) it is one of the last trees to leaf out. 5) the leaves are rippled like Ruffles potato chips, and 6) the attractive fall foliage color is yellow-gold to bronze-brown.

"Smooth gray bark of a mature beech tree". Photo by James Talmadge

“Smooth gray bark of a mature beech tree”. Photo by James Talmadge


American beech trees are found in forests, bottomlands, and ravines below 3,300 feet in altitude where there is moist rich soil. They range from central Georgia northward up the Atlantic coast to southeast Maine and Newfoundland, westward to the Great Lakes, southward to eastern Texas, and onward to the Gulf coast. It is thought by scientists that prior to the last ice age American beech trees ranged completely across the continent. There are still a few pockets of trees left in northeast Mexico. Beech trees grow best in USDA Zones 4 through 9, and there have been instances of them even surviving in zone 3.

General Culture

American beech trees grow at a slow to moderate growth rate. They prefer full sun but, are also extremely shade tolerant. American beech can be grown both farther north and farther south than their relative the European beech. They can withstand temperatures as low as -42-degrees Fahrenheit when dormant and summer temperatures as high as 105-degrees Fahrenheit. These trees will adapt to a wide range of soil from somewhat acidic to basic, but they prefer powdery limestone soils rich in organic matter with a pH from 5.0 to 6.5. They require ideally moist, well-drained soils and cannot tolerate waterlogged soils or prolonged drought. The American beech favors fertile soils with a high oxygen content that are not too heavy or compacted.

Irrigation & Fertilization

American beech always need moisture available to their roots and use twice as much water as more drought tolerant species like pines and oaks. For this reason, newly planted beech trees should be watered daily until they are well established. A moist root zone can be more easily maintained by applying 2 to 3 inches of mulch around each tree from the trunk out to the drip line at the outer edge of the canopy.

Beech trees need to be fertilized twice yearly in order to ward off infections such as beech bark disease.  For every 100 square feet of root zone, use a pound of 10-10-10 (N-P-K) granular fertilizer. The root zone extends a foot or two beyond the drip line. Spread the fertilizer evenly over the root zone then water it in thoroughly. Apply the first application in late March and the second in early August.



Young beech trees must be well trained to avoid instability in strong winds as they age. While young, prune beech trees for a strong central leader. As the crown develops, remove any upright lateral branches that might compete with the leader. Do not prune away any of the lower lateral branches until the trees are 6 to 8 years old.  These lower branches will protect the tree from sunscald on the sensitive young bark. For mature trees, prune for good structure, and if in an urban setting, prune up limbs so pedestrians and vehicles can pass beneath easily. During weekly maintenance, clip away the root suckers around the trees to keep the area neat. Most structural pruning is best done in late summer or early fall.


Beech trees are monoecious, they carry both male and female flowers on the same plant. Staminate or male flowers are drooping 1-inch catkins borne on 2-inch long stalks. Pistilate or female flowers are tiny ¼-inch inflorescences that lack petals and emerge in pairs on 1-inch long stalks. Both male and female flowers appear shortly after the new leaves come out in March or April. Wind is the primary carrier of beech pollen.


American beech trees are extremely difficult to propagate by any form of vegetative propagation whether it is by cuttings, tissue culture, or grafting. The easiest and most popular method of propagation is by sowing seeds. First collect the seeds (nuts) in late autumn within a 50-mile radius of where you will be planting the new seedlings; this is to ensure that the seedlings will be genetically acclimated to area’s soil and climate. Choose seed pods that are dried and have already started to open naturally. Put the seeds into a bowl of water to clean the debris and check for viability. Discard any seeds that float as they will not germinate. Let the seeds dry for a day or two at 65- to 75-degrees Fahrenheit, then place them into plastic baggies of moist sand. Push the seeds down into the sand. Place the baggies of sand and seeds into a refrigerator set at 41-degrees Fahrenheit for the next 90 days. After this stratification period, remove the seeds from the baggies of sand and rinse the seeds off with water. Plant the seeds into 4-inch pots of seed starter soil mix. Sow one seed per pot. Place the pots in a room with bright indirect sunlight and a temperature of 70- to 75-degrees Fahrenheit. Mist the soil when it appears dry. Once the seeds have germinated and are showing three true leaves, water the seedlings with a mixture of ½ teaspoon of 10-10-10 (N-P-K) liquid fertilizer per gallon of water. Apply this fertilizer every two weeks. When the seedlings are 8 to 10 inches tall, transplant them into 1-gallon pots using a standard potting soil. In mid-May, when there is no threat of frost, start moving the potted seedling outdoors into an area with filtered sunshine. Let the seedlings stay outside till late fall, then move them indoors next to a sunny window for the winter. In the spring of their second year, plant the seedlings outdoors in an open location where they will get at least 6 hours of full sun per day with plenty of room to spread out.

Pests & Diseases

The long-lived American beech is rarely affected by pests and typically disease free, but there are several insects that can attack them such as giant bark aphids, beech blight aphids, wooly beech aphids, caterpillars, oak weevils, mites, leaf miners, pear thrips, gypsy moths, beech borers, beech lacebug, leafhoppers, and beech scale. Beech scale can penetrate the bark and make the tree susceptible to beech bark disease, a devastating canker disease that is infecting mature trees across the country. Some other diseases that can strike beech trees are bleeding bark canker, butt rot, leafspot, powdery mildew and root rot.

"A beech leaf in late summer with powdery mildew". Photo by James Talmadge

“A beech leaf in late summer with powdery mildew”. Photo by James Talmadge

General Problems

When young, American beech trees are vulnerable to winter sunscald. They also transplant poorly due to having a long tap root. Mature trees are sensitive to early frosts. Early frosts can retard growth causing decreased nut production the next year. The trees can be damaged by strong winds, sapsuckers, and squirrels. Beech trees do not grow well in urban areas where the air is high in sulfur dioxide or carbon monoxide. The shallow root system can be easily disturbed by lawn mowers or tillers. This shallow dense root system makes it nearly impossible to grow grass or perennials underneath the trees. Fruit and husks can make messy litter on sidewalks and streets.

"Beech leaves and zig-zag twigs in late summer".  Photo by James Talmadge.

“Beech leaves and zig-zag twigs in late summer”. Photo by James Talmadge

Harvest & Storage

Beech trees are late bloomers in the plant world, they don’t start producing nuts till around 40 years of age, but by 60 years old they are producing large crops of beechnuts. Once producing, they only produce abundant crops in cycles about every 3 years.

In late fall, just after the first frost, the forest floor under beech trees is usually covered with their spiny Velcro-like husks containing the nuts. Gather the nuts by hand and rub them between towels to remove their outer husks. Once the outer husk is removed, spread the nuts out in a single layer on newspaper or a tarp in a well-ventilated, secure area away from chipmunks and other rodents for 2 to 3 weeks to cure. For long term storage, leave the nuts with their inner shells intact after curing. They will keep for over a year in this manner. Store them in rodent-proof glass jars in a cool dark place.

If using the nuts immediately, remove their leathery inner shells with your fingernails or teeth like shelling sunflower seeds or pistachios. There is a single beechnut inside each triangular shell, which are about the size of a popcorn kernel. The beechnut has a light brown papery husk that can be removed by using friction between towels. After picking out the papery husks, you are finally left with the small white nuts. Cook them in a pan for about 3 to 5 minutes. Roasting them in this fashion will improve their flavor and neutralize toxins in any remaining husks.

Culinary Uses

In colonial times, young beech leaves were cooked as pot greens or added to fresh salads. The young leaves picked early in spring have a soft texture and a pleasant, mild, nutty flavor. The beechnuts were also used as a food. Shelled nuts were roasted then added to breads and pastries.  The kernels were also cooked and then ground into a butter or into a flour. They were also pressed into an edible cooking oil. Beechnuts are up to 50% oil. Non-alcoholic coffee-like beverages were made from boiled nuts and a liquor, like sloe gin, was made by soaking the leaves in gin for several weeks. In times of need, the inner bark of the beech tree was dried and ground into sawdust which was then added to flour as an extender. The aromatic bark and wood have been used to improve the flavor of beers, thus the term “beechwood aging”. Beechwood is also used to cure hams, sausages, and cheeses.

Nutritional Benefits & Medicinal Uses

Beechnuts are one of the three most nutrient-dense nuts. The other two, acorns (oak) and sweet chestnuts are also in the Beech family, Fagaceae. Beechnuts are a good source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. These nuts are especially high in amino acids such as tryptophan, leucine, and lysine. Beechnut oil made from the nuts contains up to 23% protein and is also rich in vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese. The leaves have also been eaten for hundreds of years and are rich in minerals, starch, and protein.

Native Americans have long known the antiseptic, disinfectant, and analgesic properties of the beech tree. Parts of the beech tree have been used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans, as well as, Europeans for centuries. Eating the leaves can help improve digestion. Poultices made from beech leaves can be used to soothe minor burns, relieve headaches, ease swelling, and to treat frostbite. A tar or creosote, made from distilled beech branches, can be applied topically to relieve wounds or inflamed areas of skin and to protect them from infections. This creosote has both analgesic and antiseptic properties. A tea brewed from dried inner bark has been used to treat tuberculosis, as a blood cleanser, and to boost the immune system with its antioxidant properties. Decoctions made from beechnuts have been used to cleanse the body of toxins by stimulating kidney function.

"Multiple trees in the forest holding their foliage through winter". Photo by David Moore

“Multiple trees in the forest holding their foliage through winter”. Photo by David Moore

Native American Uses

Although many native peoples used beech nutmeats for food, no other people had as many culinary uses for them as the Iroquois did. The Iroquois made breads by mixing crushed beech nuts with cornmeal, berries, and beans. Pies were also cooked combining beech nuts and corn pudding. The Iroquois people made an oily drink by crushing and boiling the nutmeats. A gravy was made by salting and seasoning the oil from the nuts. The Iroquois also garnished mashed potato dishes and corn soup with crushed beech nuts.

The Chippewa, Tsalagi, and Potawatomi tribes carefully followed chipmunks and deer mice back to their burrows in the fall to rob their stores of beech nuts. The rodents had usually already cleaned and culled through the nuts so only the best nuts were hoarded.

Many tribes also used the wood of the beech tree as building material for lodges and as fuel. The Cherokee used the wood for lumber and to make buttons. The Micmac people utilized beech wood for snowshoe frames and the Potawatomi made beech wood bowls and other cooking utensils.

Some tribes mixed beech nut oil and bear grease to make mosquito repellant.

Ornamental Uses

The dried light-brown leaves hanging on their branches through most of the winter is thought by many to be an attractive feature of beech trees. The beech tree is best utilized as a specimen tree or shade tree in large landscape designs. It is better to limit their use in urban settings. They eventually become too large for smaller properties, but are well suited for naturalized areas on large lots, in parks, or at the edge of forests. When mature, these trees cast too much shade for any companion plants or a lawn to survive underneath them, so mulch the ground underneath them out to the edge of the drip line and routinely prune out the suckers as they appear.

Other Uses

The American beech has long been considered an important timber species. Although their wood is not very durable, it is hard, strong, and widely used for many applications. It has been used to make containers such as barrels, bowls, flooring, veneer, toys, musical instruments, furniture, buttons, pins, kitchen utensils, tool handles, and shoe stretchers. It makes an excellent firewood for heating or cooking on wood stoves because of its good burning properties and high density. In colonial times, the wood was used to make charcoal and the ashes were used to make soap. The nuts were used to make lamp oil and as a furniture polish. The leaves were used to feed livestock and the nuts were used as pig fodder. These trees are also a significant source of food for wildlife such as mice, chipmunks, racoons, foxes, deer, bears, quail, ducks, and wild turkeys. The beech tree is also a larval host for several butterfly varieties. The trees are used as windbreak hedging since they hold their dead leaves well into winter thus providing extra wind protection. A modern textile fabric, Modal, is made from reconstituted cellulose from beechwood pulp. The leaves and bark have also been used to make yellow and brown fabric dyes.

Recommended Varieties

There are currently no known commercial varieties of American beech in the green industry. Plant breeders and collectors are currently making selections of unique individual trees with unusual foliage or habit.  Briefly in the 1920s, there were two selections, ‘Abundance’ and ‘Abrams’ made in Indiana. Then, in the 1950s there was a selection made in New York called ‘Jenner’. But, none of these selections ever caught on in the commercial trade and are not available today.

Related Species & Varieties

The American Beech is one of 10 species of Beech in the Northern Hemisphere. The most well known of these is the European Beech, Fagus sylvatica. It is a native to central Europe and has been used more as an ornamental than the American Beech because of its handsome foliage. Some of the best selections of the European Beech are:

  1. Copper Beech, F. sylvatica ‘Purpurea’ – leaves start in spring as purple pink turning to a deep purple.
  2. Pendulous Beech, F. sylvatica ‘Pendula’ – has weeping branches sometimes trailing to the ground.
  3. Tricolor Beech, F. sylvatica ‘Tricolor’ – a good container plant with white/pink edged green leaves.
  4. Cutleaf Beech, F. sylvatica ‘Laciniata’ – has narrow, deeply-serrated green leaves.

Two other related species are the Oriental Beech, Fagus orientalis, and the Japanese Beech, Fagus crenata. The Oriental Beech originate in Asia Minor, have hairy twigs and can grow to 100-feet tall. The Japanese Beech is a common forest tree in its native Japan. It can grow to 115-feet tall and has attractive dark green ovate leaves.

Hazards & Cautions

Humans can eat beechnuts just like wildlife, but it is best not to eat too many in one sitting because these nuts contain a mildly toxic, detergent-like chemical that is saponic glycoside. When beechnuts are eaten in large quantities, this toxin can cause mild, rapid-onset gastrointestinal upset. Wildlife seem to be virtually immune to this toxin. There is another toxin, fagin, in the skin of the kernel or nut. Roasting allows the skin to be rubbed off and the potency of the toxin is also diminished. Raw nuts remain high in fagin so they are best avoided.   Bark teas should not be used by pregnant or nursing women.


The American beech tree is a massive, stately, native tree of great importance in our early history.  Although these trees are still quite common in forests throughout the Southeast, today the beech is mostly forgotten as a valuable food source and as a large landscape element. We would be wise to look upon the beech with reverence and remember all its many uses.

References & Related Links

Adamant, Ashley. September 28, 2018. Foraging Beech Nuts. Practical Self Reliance| retrieved from https:// practical self

Bender, Steve. The New Southern Living Garden Book. New York: Oxmoor House, 2015.

Brickell, Christopher and Joyce, David. Pruning and Training. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2017.

Grimm, William Carey. The Illustrated Book of Trees. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Publishing, 1983.

Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.

Head, Bob H. Hutchinson’s Tree Book – A Reference Guide to Popular Trees. Taylors, SC: Hutchinson Publishing, 2006. Health Benefits Times, 2017.

Kershner, Bruce; Matthews, Daniel; Nelson, Gil; Spellenberg, Richard. National Wildlife Federation: Guide to Trees of North America. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008.

Kirkman, L. Katherine; Brown, Claude L.; Leopold, Donald J. Native Trees of the Southeast – An Identification Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.

Nix, Steve. March 20, 2019. Essentials for Tree Seed Propagation. Thought Co. retrieved from

Petrides, George A. Peterson Field Guides – Eastern Trees. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Staughton, John. October 08, 2019. 7 Interesting Benefits of Beech. Organic Facts| retrieved from

Sternberg, Guy and Wilson, Jim. Native Trees for North American Landscapes. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.

Westover, Jessica. (n.d.). How to Grow Beechnut Tres From Seeds. Home Guides | SF Gate. Retrieved from

"A young 5 gallon beech tree from a commercial nursery".  Photo by James Talmadge

“A young 5 gallon beech tree from a commercial nursery”. Photo by James Talmadge



  • ArcheWild Native Nurseries – Quakertown, PA.
  • Native Forest Nursery – Chatsworth, GA.
  • Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery – Orefield, PA.
  • Mid Atlantic Natives – Cobbs Creek, VA.
  • Rock Bridge Trees – Bethpage, TN.

July 27, 2019
by jhtalmadge

Eastern Black Walnut

Eastern Black Walnut

Juglans nigra


I wasn’t aware of the value of black walnut trees until my father and uncle sold a large black walnut tree off my grandmother’s land for thousands of dollars. Even though I was only ten at the time, I realized then how treasured black walnut trees are. The black walnut is a highly valued tree commercially today and was prized by Native Americans for its medicinal properties. It is a member of the Juglandaceae family, which includes hickory trees and pecan trees (Carya). There are 21 deciduous trees in the Juglans genus which are spread across the world from Southeast Asia to Southeast Europe and North America. The two most economically important species are Juglans nigra, the black walnut, and Juglans regia, the English walnut. The black walnut is grown primarily for its timber (saw wood and veneer), whereas, English walnuts are grown predominately for their edible nuts. Black walnuts are native to North America. Although, most old-growth walnuts have been harvested for timber, a giant specimen still survives on Sauvie Island in Oregon. It is the national champion tree and it stands 112 feet tall with a 7.4-foot diameter trunk.

A mature black walnut tree

A mature black walnut tree Photo taken by – David Moore


Black walnut trees are slow-to-moderate growing deciduous trees, which typically grow 50- to 90-feet tall with comparable spreads. Their shape is usually pyramidal with their spread getting wider with age and their somewhat open symmetrical crown being round to oval.

The enormous, pinnately-compound leaves of the black walnut have 15 to 23 leaflets and are typically 12 to 24 inches long. Each finely toothed leaflet is 2 to 5 inches long and ¾ to 2 inches wide. Leaflets are held in alternately arranged pairs often with no terminal leaflet. This lack of a leaflet at the end of their compound leaves and the aromatic scent released when the leaves are crushed are two good identifying traits of the black walnut tree. Their thick twigs are brown with light to dark brown inner pith. The black walnut’s smooth, sturdy branches are grey to reddish beige. Stems taste bitter when chewed from tannins and turn saliva yellow. The bark is thick and dark brown to greyish-black. Younger trees have smooth matte-finished bark, but trees 30 years or older have deeply fissured bark resembling braided rope forming diamond shapes. The drooping male catkins are 3- to 5-inches long and are found on last year’s growth. Small female flowers appear in clusters at the ends of the current year’s growth. The fruit is a large, globular, 1.5- to 2.5-inch, light-green nut with one-piece hulls. These unique hulls distinguish them from other walnuts and hickories which have hulls divided into segments. The dark brown shell is extremely thick with irregular ridges. The edible seed inside is light brown with a convoluted surface.


Illustration of the black walnut parts: leaf, male catkin, nuts with husks, nut, kernel, and female flowers. Illustration by Karen M. Johnson

Illustration of the black walnut parts: leaf, male catkin, nuts with husks, nut, kernel, and female flowers. Illustration by Karen M. Johnson

Site Selection/Range/General Culture:

Black walnuts are commonly found in well-drained bottomlands, around old homesites where they were originally planted or in open pastures. These trees range from southern Ontario, westward to eastern South Dakota, southward to eastern Texas, eastward to northern Florida, and northward to Massachusetts. Their range encompasses most of the eastern United States except for the coastal area of the Gulf states. They thrive in Zones 4 thru 9 and when dormant will survive temperatures down to     -17-degrees Fahrenheit without any serious damage. Black walnuts prefer a slightly alkaline pH of 6 to 7.2 in a deep, rich, moist, loamy soil. They will tolerate most soils, even drier less fertile soils, but in these conditions, they will grow more slowly and not produce as many nuts.

When planting a black walnut, plant them in a full sun woodland garden setting away from houses, roads, driveways, sidewalks, and patios. This is because they can pose problems from heavy falling nuts or tannins in the husks and leaves staining surfaces.


Black walnuts are tough, resilient trees. Water your saplings thoroughly when planted, then water once a week during the growing season for the next two years. Each time you water allow the soil to dry around the root ball between waterings. As a rule of thumb, walnuts need 1 to 1.5 inches of rain per week, but once the young trees start to bare nuts at 5 to 7 years of age, they will need deep watering during the 5th to 7th week after blossom to maximize top-quality nut growth. A drought situation during this period will cause the nuts to not fill out their shells properly.

It was thought for years that established trees rarely need supplemental irrigation, but new research shows that nut production and tree growth are markedly complimented by regular watering during the growing season.


No fertilizer is needed the first year after planting a young walnut tree. Weed suppression around the young trees is more important since the weeds will compete for nutrients already present in the soil. Starting the second year, apply 2 ounces of 15-15-15 or 20-10-10 granular fertilizer in the spring and again in the summer. Spread the fertilizer evenly around the full canopy area and especially at the drip line. Follow this procedure every year until the tree is 6-inch caliper, then increase the rate to 4 ounces of granular fertilizer in the spring and again in the summer.

Each year through your county extension service do a soil analysis to check the macronutrient levels       (N-P-K) and pH.  Also, have a foliar analysis done to check for any micronutrients that may be lacking such as calcium, zinc, boron or copper. After consulting with your local extension agent or agronomist, apply more fertilizer, pelletized lime, or foliar micronutrient sprays to adjust your levels that are out of whack.

If you prefer not to use chemical fertilizers, well-rotted manure may be spread around the root zone.

Large section of Black Walnut tree trunk

Large section of Black Walnut tree trunk Photo taken by- David Moore

Pruning & Training:

Overall, black walnuts are low-maintenance trees that only require minimal pruning each year once established.  It is important to initially train your tree to a single, dominant, central leader with no branches of less than a 45-degree angle. Prune the limb structure to be alternately spaced with no branches directly opposite one another as this will improve the strength of the tree over its lifetime. Keep in mind the simple rule of thumb when pruning nut trees that 30% to 50% of the tree should be crown or branches and the rest should be trunk. There may be some small twists or turns in the trunk, but those will normally disappear as the tree matures. Only prune black walnuts in late summer to early fall or else the pruning cuts will ooze sap profusely and weaken the tree.


Black walnuts are monoecious with separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Walnuts are partially self-fertile but produce better with another pollinizer as this will assist with cross-pollination and thus increase nut production. Pollen is transferred by the wind.  Late spring frosts may damage flowers causing poor nut production.


Named varieties of walnut trees are normally propagated by vegetative means through budding or grafting onto a rootstock. Grafted trees will usually start bearing 2 to 3 years earlier than seedlings and have better quality nuts. If you opt for the for bareroot or containerized grafted trees, try to plant them in late winter or early spring.

Commercial rootstocks and trees grown for use by home gardeners are grown from seed. When growing from seed make sure to select seeds from trees of superior quality. The nut quality, production level, nut oil content, and geographic location of the parent tree are all important factors to consider when choosing a seed source. The parent trees should not be from more than 200 miles south of the intended planting site. If seeds are chosen from trees farther south, they will be less cold hardy and thus more prone to die back. Seeds should be stratified in a cold, moist place at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for 3 to 4 months for maximum germination. This can be accomplished by planting seeds in deep-cell trays filled with sand and placed in unheated hoop houses in fall or put in plastic baggies of sand then placed in a refrigerator. The seeds will usually germinate in late winter or early spring. Once germinated, transplant the seedlings into individual deep pots filled with seedling soil mix. In early summer, cull through the seedlings and pick the best ones. Then, plant these seedlings in their permanent locations. Stake the young seedlings and give them winter protection the next two winters.

Pest & Disease/Common Problems:

Black walnuts rarely have any problems when in a solitary or non-orchard setting. If proper crop maintenance such as timely fertilizing, pruning, weeding, and watering are applied with the use of disease-free stock most diseases or pest problems can be prevented.

Plant diseases which can affect walnuts are caused by bacterial, fungal, viral, or oomycete pathogens. Some of the major bacterial problems are crown gall and walnut leaf blight. Fungal diseases of walnuts are anthracnose, powdery mildew, oak root fungus, deep bark canker, shallow bark canker, walnut blotch, honey fungus, and branch wilt. The worst viral malady attacking walnuts is blackline disease, which is caused by cherry leaf roll virus, this can be prevented by growing trees on their own roots. Walnut diseases caused by oomycetes are phytophthora root and crown rot. These two diseases can be controlled by planting in well-drained soils and avoiding wetting the tree trunks when irrigating. A new walnut disease that is advancing across the country is thousand cankers disease which is spread by the walnut twig beetle.

Pests which impinge upon walnut trees are aphids, fall webworms, walnut scale, spider mites, codling moth, walnut husk fly, walnut twig beetle, and fire ants. Most of these insect problems can be controlled by spraying Spinosad or beneficial nematodes. An early spring application of horticultural oil when the buds are just starting to swell will help control scale and aphids. It is also important to keep ants off your trees by encircling the trees with sticky boards since ants will protect and farm the aphids for honeydew. Wildlife can also be a pest. Squirrels and crows are prone to eating the nuts. Deer will forage on the tender young twigs and branches.

Common problems with black walnuts are that they are hard to transplant due to their deep tap root and they produce juglone, which acts as a growth inhibitor to some other types of plants such as apples, azaleas, pines and tomatoes. Walnuts are also untidy trees that drop leaves, stems, and nuts through the year which must be raked up to maintain pest and disease control.

Consult your local county extension agent for guidance on controlling any of these problems should they arise.


Leaves & Nuts

Leaves & Nuts Photo taken by – David Moore

Harvest & Storage:

Walnuts begin to ripen in late summer, but most won’t fall from the tree until after the first frost. The large green billiard ball-sized walnuts are ready to harvest once they are soft enough to make a small impression on the husks with your thumb. You can wait till the nuts fall to the ground then pick them up or use a long stick and ladder to knock them down. Always wear rubber gloves when harvesting because the tannins in the husks can stain your hands brown for weeks.

The husks usually remain attached after the nuts fall from the tree. The nuts will spoil if the husks are not promptly removed. This difficult task can be accomplished by several different methods: removing the husks by hand, grinding them under your boots on a paved surface, or even driving your vehicle over them repeatedly. Don’t gather any nuts that have mostly black husks because these may be diseased, but ones with a few black spots are fine.

After all the husks are removed, spread the nuts out in a single layer on a screen or concrete surface in a cool dry place for three weeks to let them cure. At the end of three weeks, sample some of the nuts. The nutmeat should be crunchy, not soft or mushy. Also, test the nuts by dropping them into a bucket of water. Discard the ones that float because they may not be fully filled out.

Black walnuts have a high fat content and thus go rancid quickly. For the best long-term storage, store the unshelled nuts in a cool dark location. They will keep for up to a year or more once dried in their shells. Cracking the nuts can be much more difficult than shelling English walnuts. For this tedious project, use a hammer and towel or a vise to remove the shells. There is also a specialized black walnut cracker on the market. The nutmeat can be kept for up to a week if refrigerated in plastic baggies or frozen in baggies they will last up to six months.

Culinary Uses:

The taste of black walnuts is stronger and fruitier than English walnuts. It may be wise to mix them with milder nuts because of their intense flavor. The kernels can be eaten out of hand or used as a topping to add richness to many dishes such as salads or ice creams.  The delicious nuts can be used to make a myriad of baked goods such as breads, pastries, cakes, candies, and baklava. Unripe nuts can be pickled in vinegar or be used to make liqueurs. Nuts can be pressed for their oil which is used in salad dressings and in general cooking applications. The nuts can be finely ground into a meal, which then can be used in baking. The nut shells can be ground and used as a spice. The leaves can be dried and used to brew tea. Black walnut trees can be tapped like sugar maples in the spring. The sweet sap can be consumed raw, dried to make sugar, or concentrated by cooking to make syrup.

Nutritional Benefits:

We have all heard about the benefits of eating walnuts for brain and heart health, but there are many other nutritional benefits to consuming black walnuts, which are packed with micro-nutrients, vitamins and other helpful compounds. Black walnuts are loaded with the minerals including manganese, copper, phosphorus, and magnesium. The nuts are also high in zinc and selenium. From a vitamin standpoint, walnuts are an outstanding source of vitamins such as vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, and folate. The nuts are also especially high in vitamin B5 and vitamin B6. The husks can also be used to extract Vitamin C.

Black walnuts are also rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, and melatonin. The quinone compound present in black walnuts, plumbagin, has been found to have antimalarial, neuroprotective, and anticancer properties in scientific studies. Plumbagin has been shown to inhibit the growth of prostate, lung, and, breast cancer cells in Chinese medical studies. An omega-3 fatty acid known as ALA or alpha-linolenic acid in black walnuts protects against coronary heart disease. Diets including walnuts have been found to lessen LDL cholesterol thus reducing blood pressure and the risk of heart attack. The astringent properties of tannins in leaves and husks of black walnuts are helpful in treating skin maladies like acne, eczema, and poison ivy rashes.

Juglone, the compound present in most parts of the plant is toxic to parasitic worms and can be used to expel them from the digestive system. This same compound also has antifungal properties. The juice of green husks was used in folk medicine for ages to treat the fungal infection ringworm. Preparations sold today use ground walnut husks to treat other fungal infections such as candida. Juglone has also exhibited strong antibacterial activity in studies and shows promise in treating Staphylococcus infections.

Native American Uses:

Native peoples had many uses for the black walnut tree. The Comanche and Delaware used the juice of ground leaves and husks to treat areas affected by ringworm fungus. Both the Iroquois and Cherokee used the ground bark as an analgesic. The Iroquois made a poultice of bark for headaches and the Cherokee chewed black walnut bark for toothaches. The bark is somewhat poisonous so caution is recommended in its use. An infusion of the root bark was used by the Rappahannock as an antidiarrheal to ward off dysentery. The Houma and Oklahoma tribes made concoctions from sap and pulverized husks to cure skin inflammations. The Houma also made a decoction from crushed leaves to remedy high blood pressure. Several tribes including the Kiowa used a decoction of root bark to kill parasitic worms.

Many tribes used walnuts as a food source. Crushed nuts were used to make soups, hot beverages, breads or eaten raw mixed with honey. Crushed nutmeats were also added to corn pudding or mixed with mashed potatoes. The Chippewa and Cherokee made brown and black dyes from the husks or roots. The green husks were used by some tribes as a poison in lakes to stun and catch fish. The Delaware and Iroquois used crushed leaves mixed with nutmeat oil and bear grease as an insecticide to deter mosquitos and fleas. The Cherokee fashioned the attractive wood into furniture, gunstocks and ornately carved decorations.

Ornamental Uses:

Black Walnut trees make an attractive, stately addition to any landscape, but one must consider their placement near other plantings due to their production of the toxic compound, juglone. This problem with juglone can be solved by building raised beds for your other plants or using plants that are immune to it.

Plant black walnuts clear of any structures, driveways, sidewalks or parking lots because they have tannins in their leaves and husks which will stain these surfaces. The possibility of large nuts dropping on roofs and cars must also be taken into consideration. These trees can make excellent shade trees but are rarely chosen by landscape architects because they are some of the last trees to leaf out in spring and the first to drop leaves in the fall.

Other Uses:

Black walnut wood is highly prized for its rich dark color, durability, and ease of working. It is traditionally used for cabinets, gunstocks, coffins, flooring, furniture, and many other wood products. Walnut wood   is used as a thin veneer or as solid wood. Walnut bark has been used in tanning hides for leathercraft and as a tooth cleaner. Dried walnut leaves can be mixed with straw to make an insect repellant.

Walnut husks are full of tannins and have been boiled down to make dark brown hair dye or textile dye for years. Husks can also be used to make a rich brown ink when mixed with gum arabic, alcohol and water. The nut shells can be finely ground and used as an adulterant or extender in different types of grain. The ground up nut shells have also been used for an abrasive in sand blasting and to de-frag engine parts after manufacturing. The ground shells have also been used as an anti-skid agent on icy walkways and roads.

Black walnut kernels can be pressed to make an oil for paints, stains, paint thinners, and furniture polishes. Ground kernels can be used as a protein supplement feed for cattle or be used as an additive to general livestock feeds.

Commercial English walnut growers use high-grafted black walnut rootstocks for their nut crop trees. So, once the English walnut scion starts to wain in nut production, they can harvest the valuable black walnut log for lumber or veneer.

Black Walnut Leaves

Black Walnut Leaves Photo taken by – David Moore

Recommended Varieties/Related Varieties:

Black Walnuts have been bred for better nut production, lumber, and even as an ornamental.  ‘Thomas Black’, ‘Victoria’, and ‘Norris’ are varieties bred for superior nut production in the southeast. ‘Lambs Curly’ is a variety that has unique curly grained wood. Whereas, ‘Lacinata’ was selected for landscape use because of its attractive finely dissected foliage.

Black walnut is a native of eastern North America but there are five other walnut varieties found elsewhere in North America. Butternut or white walnut (Juglans cinerea) grows from Georgia northward through Minnesota and on into Canada. It is very cold hardy and was highly valued for its flavor by Native Americans. The Little walnut or nogalito (Juglans microcarpa) is found in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. It is used as an ornamental landscape tree for smaller landscapes since it grows as a large shrub or small tree. The Arizona walnut (Juglans major) is native to Arizona, western New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Arizona walnuts grow in rocky canyons and along rivers. The southern California walnut (Juglans californica) is one of two walnut varieties found in California. The southern California walnut is used as an ornamental tree and for erosion control. The northern California walnut (Juglans hindsii) is planted as a street tree and grown as rootstock for English walnuts which are extensively cultivated in California.

There are 14 other walnut species scattered around the world. The most well-known walnut is the English or Persian walnut (Juglans regia), which is native to western Asia. It was originally introduced into the Mediterranean region around the first century B.C. and has become popular worldwide. The English walnut is the walnut you usually see in baked goods and at Christmas. It is the most widely commercially grown variety for nut production in the walnut family. The English walnut is easier to crack open than the black walnut and has a milder flavor. The Carpathian walnut strain (Juglans regia ‘Carpathian’) originated in the mountainous regions of Poland. It is like the English walnut, but is more cold hardy. Carpathian walnut trees will survive temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia var. cordiformis) is a native Japanese tree with a 1” heart- shaped nut. Its unusually shaped nut is quite sweet and easy to crack open.

Hickories and pecans are both in the same Juglandaceae family as walnuts.

Single Black Walnut leaf close-up

Single Black Walnut leaf close-up Photo taken  by – David Moore

Hazards & Cautions:

The roots and leaves of black walnuts produce a substance called juglone which has an allelopathic or growth-inhibiting effect on many other plants, especially tomatoes, potatoes, apple trees, and pines, so they are not a good companion plant. Horses can have an allergic reaction to black walnut wood chips if used for bedding. The bark of black walnuts is poisonous if eaten by humans although it can be used in small amounts as medicine.  Wear thick rubber gloves, old clothes, and an apron when harvesting or husking black walnuts. The tannins in the husks can stain your hands or clothes brownish-yellow. The staining can last for weeks on your skin and permanently stain your clothing. Also, because of the potential damage or injury from falling nuts and staining, do not plant walnut trees near houses, sidewalks, or parking lots. Some people are allergic to wind blown pollen of the black walnut tree.

References & Related Links:

  • Bennett, Chris. Southeast Foraging. Portland: Timber Press, 2015.
  • Biggs, Matthew; McVicar, Jekka; and Flowerdew, Bob. Vegetables, Herbs & Fruit: An Illustrated Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2013
  • Creasy, Rosalind. Edible Landscaping. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2010.
  • Fern, Ken and Fern, Abby. Edible Trees: A Practical and Inspirational Guide from Plants for a Middletown, DE: Pemberton Creative, 2013.
  • Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.
  • Kirkman, L. Katherine; Brown, Claud L. and Leopold, Donald J. Native Tress of the Southeast- An Identification Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.
  • Kershner, Bruce; Mathews, Daniel; Nelson, Gil; Spellenberg, Richard. National Wildlife Federation- Field Guide to Trees of North America. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008.
  • Logsdon, Gene. Organic Orcharding: A Grove of Trees to Live In. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981.
  • McCausland, Jim. Sunset – Western Garden Book of Edibles. Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Publishing, 2010.
  • Moerman, David E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
  • Pollock, Michael. Fruit & Vegetable Gardening: The Definitive Guide to Successful Growing. New York: Doling Kimbersley Limited, 2012.
  • Russell, Tony. Smithsonian Nature Guide: Trees. New York: DK Publishing, 2012.
  • Sternberg, Guy and Wilson, Jim. Native Trees for North American Landscapes. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.
  • Zachos, Ellen. Backyard Foraging. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2013.





December 11, 2018
by jhtalmadge



Sassafras albidum


One of my earliest memories is drinking iced sassafras tea with my grandmother on a hot summer’s day. She made the amber beverage and kept it in mason jars in the refrigerator. I enjoyed the flavor but never developed much of a fondness for the sweeter effervescent root beer which can also be made from sassafras. The chilled tea was a satisfying drink in the summer, but it wasn’t near as good as the peach brandy she also made.

Sassafras is in the Lauraceae family and is the northernmost example of this family of tropical trees that includes cinnamon, avocado, and bay leaf laurel. It has been called by many common names such as cinnamon wood, ague tree, and saloop. It is one of the great treasures of the New World. Native Americans taught the settlers to use the root bark to make a tea that came to be used as a cure-all tonic on both sides of the Atlantic. The dried sassafras leaves and roots were one of the first items shipped back to Europe from the colonies. At one time in the 17th century, sassafras leaves were a more important cash-crop than tobacco.


Sassafras is a moderately growing, long-lived, small- to medium-sized deciduous tree. In the Southeast, this plant is usually observed as a scraggly member of a small colony or thicket. It usually grows to a 20-foot height when it grows as an undisturbed thicket or it can reach 40 feet to 90 feet with a spread of up to 25 feet when it grows in a tree form. The current champion tree is in Owensboro, Kentucky and is 78 feet tall with a 69-foot spread. Trunks tend to be straight, reddish, and smooth. Leaves are untoothed, 3” to 9” long, and 3” to 4” wide with three distinct leaf shapes growing on the same tree. There is a simple ovate shape, a 2-lobed mitten shape, and a three-lobed trident shaped leaf form. These multiple leaf shapes are one of the best ways to identify this tree. Only mulberries and figs have 3 leaf types like sassafras. The leaves are shiny light grass-green on top and glaucous blue-green underneath. Leaves are distinctively aromatic, like most parts of this plant and have a slightly gummy, mucilaginous taste. The leaves are held in an alternate fashion and can be covered in a velvety down or completely hairless. Twigs are green, limber, less than an inch long, and hairy when viewed under magnification. Branches are zig-zag and form horizontal layers like a dogwood. The flowers are light greenish-yellow and appear in late spring just as the leaves are forming. These tiny inconspicuous flowers have 5 petals and are held in 2-inch clusters at the ends of twigs. The fragrant flower clusters are much heavier on female trees. The fruit are ½-inch, one-seeded, fleshy, dark blue, egg-shaped drupes. They are held on long red stalks or pedicels with cup-shaped ends. The fruit ripens in September and is quickly eaten by birds. The bark is dark green on young trees and deeply fissured, reddish-brown with irregular horizontal cracks on older trees. The trunks of mature sassafras trees are usually straight and no more than 8- to 12-inches in diameter. Sassafras trees have large tap roots and spread by root suckers. The root bark is highly aromatic and holds the greatest concentration of sassafras oils.

An illustration of the Sassafras’ leaf forms, flowers, and fruit

An illustration of the Sassafras’ leaf forms, flowers, and fruit (illustrated by Karen M. Johnson)

These are the three leaf forms of the Sassafras (from left to right): mitten shaped or two lobed, simple, and three lobed or trident shaped

These are the three leaf forms of the Sassafras (from left to right): mitten shaped or two lobed, simple, and three lobed or trident shaped

Sassafras trees are normally spotted along roadsides, at the edges of forests, in open fields, or beside fence rows. They are seldom found as understory trees. They range from central Florida, northward to southwestern Maine, westward to Ontario, southward to eastern Texas, and on into the mountains of southern Mexico. Sassafras live in USDA zones 5 thru 9.

Sassafras trees are low maintenance and easy to grow. Soils that are moist, well-drained, loamy, and slightly acidic with a pH of less than 6.8 are favored by the sassafras. Although, they will tolerate heavy waterlogged soil for short periods and are somewhat drought-tolerant, they won’t endure times of prolonged drought. These trees are shade tolerant but prefer locations with full sun at least half the day.

After planting a seedling or young tree, water once a day for the first week and then once a week for the next month. When your sassafras tree is well established, it won’t need any supplemental watering unless there is a long-term drought and it won’t need any fertilizer.

Pruning & Training

Sassafras trees must be trained into a tree form otherwise they will revert into low-growing, multi-stemmed shrubs forming a dense thicket. If a tree form is preferred, select a primary trunk and then prune away the other trunks and lower branches. As the tree ages, prune away any dead wood and keep the root suckers under control.


Sassafras are dioecious trees meaning male and female flowers are held on separate trees. Only female trees with pollinated flowers will produce fruit. Pollination is accomplished by insects when trees are blooming in late spring. A small percentage of the fruit will produce viable seed. You must plant both male and female trees in order to produce fruit.


The easiest method of sassafras propagation is by digging up small root suckers at the base of parent trees or at the edges of a thickets in early spring before the plants leaf out. Dig down to the bottom of the long tap root of each sucker then gently extract the plantlet. Pot them up immediately into stretched 5- or 6-gallon pots like those used for pecan or pine trees. These special pots will accommodate their long tap roots. Sassafras can also be multiplied by root cuttings taken in early spring while the plants are still dormant. Propagation by seed, although unreliable, can be accomplished by harvesting the dark blue fruit when fully filled out. Clean the seeds and air dry them for a day or two. Store the seeds refrigerated in sealed containers. Plant the seeds outdoors in fall or stratify them at 41- degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 60 days and sow them the next spring.

Harvest & Storage

Roots can be gathered year-round, but the best time to harvest roots is on an early spring morning after the sap with all the sugars begins to rise. Leaves and twigs can be collected from spring till fall. Leaves are usually dried and ground up for storage. Roots are dried and kept in paper bags or boxes until used for teas or other decoctions.



Pest & Disease/General Problems

Being a native tree, Sassafras trees are as tough as nails. They are nearly pest and disease free. Although sassafras can be susceptible to borers, Japanese beetles, scale insects, Promethea moths, and weevils, these pests normally cause minimal damage. There is no need to spray pesticides to control them. Fungal leaf spot diseases can also affect the trees, but rarely are a big enough problem to make it necessary to spray fungicides.  Leaf spots can be controlled by raking up the leaves in fall and avoiding fertilizing or overwatering. Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease for which there is no cure, can occasionally infect sassafras trees. So, if you notice limbs turning yellow starting at the base of the tree and progressing towards the top of the tree, remove it from your yard.

A problem can be caused when planted in high pH (alkaline) soils. Sassafras can exhibit yellow leaves with green veins (iron chlorosis), which can be remedied by applying a pH adjusting compound such as aluminum sulphate to the soil to make it more acidic.  Mature sassafras trees are difficult to transplant due to their deep tap root and tend to produce many root suckers, especially when the roots have been disturbed by cultivation. Like hickory trees, sassafras trees are allelopathic and emit compounds that discourage the growth of other plants near them.


Culinary Uses

Since scientists with the USDA determined in 1960 that safrole, a phenolic ester of the plant, caused cancer in rats when they consumed extremely large quantities of a synthetic version of safrole. It is no longer considered to be a safe edible plant. This is controversial because humans and rats process safrole in different ways. Rats convert safrole into a carcinogen, whereas, humans do not. Please make you own determination before consuming parts of this plant or recipes made with it.

All parts of the sassafras plant can be eaten raw. The winter buds and young leaves are especially delicious when added to a salad. Leaves and twigs can be gathered from spring till fall whereas the roots can be dug year-round. But, the roots are best when gathered on early spring mornings after the sap has begun to rise. This will insure a higher sugar content in the roots. The twigs and leaf stalks have an agreeable, but somewhat spicy, mucilaginous taste.

Any part of the sassafras plant can be used to make a tasty tea, but the inner bark of the roots is the best. Simmer the cleaned roots in a large covered pot for 20 minutes until the water turns a reddish-brown. The same roots can be used two or three times to extract tea. Add just a sweetener to enjoy it as a tea or add seltzer water and sweetener to make an authentic root beer. Jelly can be made by adding pectin, sweetener, and lemon juice to this same tea. Native Americans taught the settlers to make a thickener and seasoning for soups and stews by grinding dried young leaves into a fine powder. The powder was then run through a sieve to remove any larger irregular pieces. The powdered seasoning was later incorporated into Creole cooking and called gumbo file’. Gumbo file’ is still legally sold as a seasoning since the dried leaves do not contain safrole. The inner bark can be scraped off the roots, dried, processed through a spice grinder or blender and used as a spice to replace cinnamon. A condiment can also be made by boiling the roots down into a thick paste.

Nutritional Benefits

Even with negative news and bans on its use, sassafras tea and sassafras oil continue to be popular. Numerous classical uses are still being employed. Sassafras oil can be applied topically to joints to relieve pain and decrease inflammation caused by gout and arthritis. It can be used to treat skin-related problems such as rashes, eczema, acne blemishes, and boils. Because of its antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, it has been used as an antiseptic in dental surgery, to treat tooth decay, speed the healing of wounds, and to improve the overall immune system. The use of this plant to reduce high fevers is one of its oldest classic applications. The diuretic properties of sassafras enable it to purge the body of toxins by increasing urination thus flushing out fats, salts, toxins and water. Sassafras tea can also aid in reducing inflammation in the digestive tract and help to regulate bowel movements.

Native American Uses

Native Americans had numerous medicinal uses for sassafras which were spread across many different tribes, but they had many of the same uses. The most prevalent use was as a decoction to treat colds, pneumonia, and other pulmonary issues. Decoctions were also used as a febrifuge to lower fevers and mitigate chills. The pith of sassafras branches was used in a decoction to wash burns. The leaves were used as a dermatological aid in the form of a poultice for cuts, burns, bruises, and bee stings. A root decoction was made to treat urinary problems such as frequent or blocked urination and general bladder pain.

Other Uses

Sassafras trees attract butterflies and are utilized as a larval host for some butterfly varieties. Birds such as brown thrashers, robins, pileated woodpeckers, and catbirds are drawn to the aromatic dark blue fruit of the plant for food and as mast. Wildlife like bears, beavers and deer enjoy eating the fruit, twigs, foliage, wood, and bark.

The aromatic oils are used as a fragrance for scented soaps and perfumes. From the time of the colonists to the early 20th century, the oils of the sassafras were used as an insect repellant. The aromatic wood has been used to make furniture. Early settlers mixed beans with the sassafras flowers to make a fertilizer for crops. The bark was also used to make an orange dye.

The tree trunk of a mature tree form Sassafras tree

The tree trunk of a mature tree form Sassafras tree

Ornamental Uses

The sassafras tree can be used as a stand-alone specimen or as a mass planting in the landscape. With their interesting layered branching, fragrant spring flowers, glossy green foliage through the summer, and striking bright yellow to red-orange autumn foliage, they make an excellent addition to any backyard seating area or outdoor room.

A mature Sassafras tree at the beginning of Fall

A mature Sassafras tree at the beginning of Fall

Hazards & Cautions

The FDA banned many former uses of the plant since safrole, the principle toxic constituent, was determined to be a mild carcinogen in 1960. If you do decide to use sassafras tea knowing the possible dangers, herbalists advise that it should only be consumed at the rate of one to two cups a day for no longer than a month. Extreme consumption of the tea can cause nausea, vomiting and stupor. The use of sassafras tea or safrole also poses a health risk to pregnant women because it can cause miscarriages. Breastfeeding women and children are also warned to avoid sassafras tea since it can cause severe side effects in small children. Consuming as little as 5 ml of concentrated essential sassafras oil can cause serious side effects such as elevated blood pressure, hallucinations and even liver damage. So, use the sassafras oil and tea in moderation. A legal notice has been issued to businesses by the DEA warning that sassafras oil or safrole can be used in the manufacture of MDMA.

Related Varieties

There is one other recognized cultivar, the silky sassafras or variety molle, which has downy branches when young and the underside of the mature leaf is also pubescent.  Sassafras trees were never widely cultivated probably due to them being difficult to transplant. But, with all the many landscape uses of a small to medium size tree, it has great potential for a hybridizing program.


The history of sassafras has been filled with many of ups and downs. There have been many controversies, sometimes shameful, sometimes dangerous, sometimes illicit, but it has always come back to being recognized as a useful plant. After being used for food and as a medicinal for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by native peoples, sassafras came to be used by many Europeans and colonists in the 17th century as a cure-all tonic, especially for syphilis and gonorrhea. People then began to shun the use of sassafras tea because it came to be associated with those having venereal diseases, although it continued to be used for decades for rheumatism and as a cold remedy. Nineteenth-century children were given concoctions of sassafras and opium to keep them calm and well-behaved. In the early 1960s, sassafras was unjustly restricted by the USDA due to the compound, safrole, being found to cause cancer in lab rats. So, people could no longer legally have their root beer and sassafras tea. Artificial alternatives had to be formulated. Then in the 1970s, it was discovered that two illicit recreational drugs, MDA and MDMA, could be made from safrole. One of which, MDMA or Ecstasy became hugely popular with rave music fans in the 1990s. Now, in the 21st century, MDMA is being used as an effective treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients and Tamiflu, a flu medication, is made from safrole. We have come full circle back to an understanding of the immense usefulness of this plant.


References & External Links

  • Angier, Bradford. Edible Wild Plants. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
  • Antol, Marie Nadine. Healing Teas: Boost Your Health with Nature’s Medicine. New York: Penquin Group, 1996.
  • Deane, Green. Sassafras: Root Beer Rat Killer. Eat the Weeds, 2007.
  • Halfacre, R. Gordon and Shawcroft, Anne R. Landscape Plants of the Southeast. Raleigh, NC: Sparks Press, 1989.
  • Kovner, Aliyah. MDMA-assisted Therapy for PTSD Edges Closer to FDA Approval After Largest-ever Trial. IFL Science, October 30, 2018.
  • Kirkman, L. Katherine and Brown, Claud L. and Leopold, Donald J. Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
  • Peterson, Lee Allen. Edible Wild Plants: Eastern /Central North America. New York: Houghts Mifflin Harcourt, 1977.
  • Russell, Tony and Cutler, Catherine. Trees: An Illustrated Identifier and Encyclopedia. London: Anness Publishing, 2004.
  • Sternburg, Guy and Wilson, Jim. Native Trees for North American Landscapes. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.
  • Wasowski, Sally and Wasowski, Andy. Gardening with Native Plants of the South. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010.



ArcheWilde Native Nurseries – Quakertown, PA

Campbell Family Nursery – Harmony, NC

Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery – Orefield, PA

Native Forest Nursery – Chatsworth, GA

Yellow Springs Farm Native Plant Nursery – Chester Springs, PA







December 9, 2018
by jhtalmadge

Eastern Redbud Tree

Eastern Redbud

Cercis canadensis var. canadensis


While traveling one March day in Tennessee between Knoxville and Maryville, I was amazed by the dozens of redbuds in bloom along both sides of Hwy 140. They formed a tunnel of gossamer lavender-pink blooms encasing the roadway. For years, I had thought redbuds were just another one of the first trees to bloom in early spring like dogwood or serviceberry, I didn’t realize that it was such an important tree to Native Americans and settlers who considered it an integral source of food and medicinals.

IMG_0575 (002)

Redbuds along the HWY 140 near Maryville, TN


Although it does not fix nitrogen in the soil, it is a legume and in the Fabaceae family with peanuts and beans. The eastern redbud is a small- to medium-size native, deciduous tree usually growing 20- to 30- feet tall with a 25- to 30-foot spread, but they can grow larger. The current champion tree is 40 feet in height with a 3-foot caliper trunk. Redbuds start out as wispy saplings and become vase shaped with many having divided trunks as they age.  Mature trees normally have rounded or flat-topped crowns.

The leaves are glossy, dark green and heart shaped (cordate) with pointed tips and smooth edges. Usually 2- to 6-inches long and 3- to 5-inches wide with radial veins running across a smooth texture on top. The leaves are sometimes slightly hairy underneath. The simple leaves are held in an alternate pattern. They are reddish purple when first emerging in spring and then turning an attractive shiny dark green when fully expanded. In autumn, they turn a rather dull yellow. Leaf petioles are commonly 1 ½-to 2 ½-inches long.

Twigs and branches are slender with pointed tips and form a spreading zig-zag pattern. On mature trees, the limbs usually don’t start till 6 feet up the tree. The small ¼- to ½-inch pea-shaped flowers are fragrant and purplish pink. They appear in clusters in late winter or early spring before the leaves appear. They form on branches of the previous or earlier years growth and even on the mature tree trunk. The rough brown trunk usually has character and looks older than it is. The trunks on most redbuds are single and are less than 12” in diameter. Redbuds develop a course root system with a deep taproot which make them difficult to transplant when established.

The fruit of the redbud is a flattened pink-green true pod which appears in early summer, turns green during summer, and then brown in the fall. The brown seed pods will sometime persist till the next spring. The pods look like butterbean pods and are 2 to 3 inches in length by ¼ to ½ inch wide. The redbud pods mature in late summer and contain 4 to 10, hard, brown to black seeds.

Illustration of a Redbud  (illustrated by Karen M. Johnson)

Illustration of a Redbud (illustrated by Karen M. Johnson)

Eastern Redbud - blooms seed pods (002)

Last year’s seed pods and this spring’s flowers in full bloom

Site Selection/Range/General Culture

Redbuds can be found along roadsides, at the edges of forests, in ravines, on riversides, in bottomlands, and on the sunny edges of fields. They will grow just about anywhere there is full sun to dappled shade in Zone 4 to 9. They range widely from northern Florida northward to New Jersey, westward to southern Wisconsin, and southward to Texas and northern Mexico. This medium to fast growing tree will adapt to a wide range of soil types and pH levels from very acid to very alkaline.  But, it prefers well-drained, deep, sandy loam with a pH of 7.5 or above. It dislikes constantly wet soils, especially compacted clay soils. But, it can tolerate short-term flooding. At the other end of the spectrum, it dislikes coarse sandy soils and drought conditions. An ideal location for a redbud would be on a sunny south-facing slope at the edge of a wooded area. Redbuds will bloom more profusely in sunny locations.

Eastern Redbud - branch with blooms (002)

An Eastern Redbud limb with flowers in several stages of bloom


It is best to plant a redbud during the cooler rainy spring months to lessen transplant shock. After planting, water your redbud tree weekly for the first month and then reduce watering to every other week. Once the tree is established, it will only need watering during the dry periods of summer. They do not like extended periods of drought or wet feet.


Fertilize your trees at six-week intervals starting from mid-March to June with a good complete analysis shrub fertilizer such as a 10-10-10. Spread one application of a slow-release fertilizer such as 24-8-10 around the tree 10” from the trunk out to the drip line in early March.

Pruning & Training

A uniform rounded crown and a strong structure can be maintained with judicious pruning. Redbuds are prone to throwing a few dead limbs that will become apparent each spring. Prune out any dead or diseased branches and dispose of the cuttings. Redbuds are low-branched and have limbs that tend to droop so, pruning may be necessary for pedestrian or vehicular clearance. These trees want to grow with split trunks but can be trained to grow with a single trunk for a stronger structure.


The flowers of the redbud are hermaphrodite meaning they contain the reproductive parts of both sexes so they are self-pollinating. Redbuds are most commonly pollinated by bees.


Redbuds can be propagated by seed, softwood cuttings, or by simply relocating self-seeded seedlings. When propagating by seed, it is best to sow the seeds as soon as they are ripe in fall. First, to breakdown the hard seed coat, pre-soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours. Then, scarify the seeds in boiling water or concentrated sulfuric acid for 30 minutes. Next, stratify them in a cold sand bed kept at 41- degrees Fahrenheit for 2 to 3 months. This will meet their cold requirements and get the seeds ready to germinate. Sow the seeds in a greenhouse the next spring in seed trays. Pop out the seedlings as soon as they are large enough and place them in individual 5-inch pots. The young seedlings can be planted outdoors in early fall or held over in an unheated greenhouse till the next spring depending on your zone. Another propagation method is to take softwood cuttings in mid to late summer. Use a rooting hormone and plant them in a light soil medium with plenty of perlite. Once well rooted, transfer them to individual 1-gallon pots.



Pests, Diseases, and Other Problems

Redbuds can be damaged by a few pests such as caterpillars, scales, leaf hoppers, Japanese weevil, and wood borers. But, for the most part redbuds are unaffected by pests.

Just get used to 2 or 3 dead limbs appearing each spring on a mature redbud. It is the nature of the beast. These diseased limbs are caused by the most common problem of the redbud, canker. No chemical preventive has been found. Usually, canker on the branches will not kill the tree. So, prune out the few dead branches in late spring each year and go on with life. Verticillium wilt is another disease that can be troublesome for redbuds as well as many other plant species. During rainy periods, anthracnose leaf spot and coral spot fungus can be difficult, but rarely becomes serious. Also, during wet conditions, root rot can be a problem for young redbuds.

There are a few other minor problems that also affect redbuds. They are sensitive to Glyphosate and other herbicides being sprayed around their roots. They don’t like to have their roots disturbed once established and the amount of volunteer seedling coming near a mature tree can become a maintenance nightmare. But all in all, redbuds are hardy resilient trees that require little maintenance.

Harvest & Storage

The flowers should be harvested in the early morning or late afternoon for the best flavor and shelf life. Hand pick the flowers off the stems or cut off entire branches to pull the flowers from later. Store the blooms refrigerated in a plastic baggie with a wet paper towel for moisture or freeze the flower buds in ice trays. The young tender seed pods should also be carefully hand-picked. The older pods are too tough and stringy to be eaten. Store the unwashed young seed pods frozen or refrigerated in plastic baggies.

Culinary Uses

The flowers, young leaves, young seed pods, and seeds are all edible. The roots and inner bark can also be used to make herbal tinctures and infusions. The flowers have a sharp, acidic, green peanut flavor before they open and then are blander once fully opened. Flower buds can be pickled and used as a caper substitute. The crunchy raw opened flowers can be added to salads and pasta dishes or used as a garnish. The flowers can also be mixed with pancake batter to make fritters or added into bread dough. The blossoms can also be floated in drinks as decoration. Native American children would eat the blossoms as an early spring treat.

The young seed pods can be eaten raw or sautéed for 10 to 15 minutes and eaten like snow peas. The seed pods can also be added to other vegetable dishes as an acidic counter point to the other vegetables. Native Americans spread the seed pods in the hot ashes of their campfires and ate the roasted seed.

Medicinal Uses and Nutritional Benefits

Several Native American tribes and settlers used the inner bark and roots of the redbud to make a cold infusion to quell fevers or to reduce respiratory congestion. An astringent cold drink was also made from the roots and bark to stop vomiting and dysentery. A hot tea was made by boiling the inner bark to treat whooping cough in children and coughs in adults. The redbud flowers are rich in vitamin C and contain anthocyanin which is an antioxidant.


Other Native American Uses

Native Americans held the redbud in high regard because they had so many uses for the tree. The wood was used for tool handles, bows, and as a building material. The outer bark of the tree was used for basket weaving and the inner bark for sewing thread or cordage. Small stems were used as a fire starter in winter. The dried leaves of the tree were used as an incense in ceremonies. The blooms were used as a seasonal indicator harkening the beginning of spring.


Eastern Redbud - in bloom (002)

A mature Eastern Redbud in full bloom

Ornamental Uses

With their striking pink-lavender blooms in spring and their handsome heart-shaped summer foliage, redbuds are an excellent choice as a specimen tree, mass planting in a background or as a filler in any landscape. Redbuds also have attractive yellow fall foliage. It is adaptable to partial shade or full sun, is relatively low maintenance, and rarely troubled by pest or disease problems.


Recommended Varieties/Related Varieties

There are two species of redbuds native to North America. The Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is found in Arizona, Nevada, and California. It is smaller with a mature height of 18 feet and tends to be more drought tolerant. The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) has three botanical varieties; var. canadensis (the common form), var. texensis (Texas redbud – a compact tree with smaller glossy leaves), var. mexicana (Mexican redbud – a smaller shrubby form with a rounded leaf).

There are many selected cultivars of Cercis canadensis var. canadensis. Some have pink blooms, some have white blooms, some have darker flowers, some have burgundy foliage, some are weeping forms, and others have variegated foliage.

‘Pinkbud’ – true pink flowers.

‘Pink Charm’ – pinkish flowers.

‘Royal White’ – larger white flowers & a compact form.

‘Alba’ – white flowers.

‘Appalachian Red’ – dark reddish-pink flowers.

‘Forest Pansy’ – purple foliage & darker pink-magenta flowers.

‘Purple Leaf’ – purple foliage when young.

‘Covey’ – a green-leafed weeping redbud with a 6-foot mature height.

‘Ruby Falls’ – a purple-leafed weeping redbud with a 6-foot mature height.

‘Silver Cloud’ – variegated foliage with white variegation.

‘Carolina Sweetheart’ – pink, purple and white variegated foliage.

Cercis chinensis ‘Don Egolf’ – dwarf form.

Cercis reniformis ‘Oklahoma’ – Oklahoma redbud

Cercis chinensis – Chinese redbud.

Cercis siliquastrum – European species.


Hazards & Cautions

People with peanut allergies should avoid eating redbud flower buds and bean pods since redbuds and peanuts are close relatives in the legume family.


The Eastern Redbud is a readily available tree for foraging and an exceptional ornamental landscape plant. These trees are low maintenance and easy to grow. The redbud would make an outstanding addition to any home landscape.

References & External Links

Bennett, Chris. Southeast Foraging. Portland: Timber Press, 2015.

Brakie, Melinda. Plant Fact Sheet: Eastern Redbud. August 2010. USDA. Accessed 1 June 2018.

Brill, Steve. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.

Christensen, Julie. What Time of Year to Plant a Redbud Tree. SF Gate. 1-12-18. Accessed 1 June 2018.

Dirr, Michael A. Manuel of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses. pp. 661-662. Champaign, IL. Stipes Publishing, 1990.

Gilman, Edward F. and Watson, Dennis G. Cercis reniformis ‘Oklahoma’ Oklahoma Redbud. November 1993. USDA. Accessed 1 June 2018.

Halfacre, R. Gordon and Shawcroft, Anne R. Landscape Plants of the Southeast. Raleigh, NC: Sparks Press, 1989.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. pp. 148-149. Portland: Timber Press, 2016.

Peterson, Lee Allen. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1977.

Plants for a Future: Edible Trees. Middletown, DE: Pemberton Creative, 2013.

Sternberg, Guy & Wilson, Jim. Native Trees for North American Landscapes. Portland: Timber Press, 2004

Wasowski, Sally & Wasowski, Andy. Gardening with Native Plants of the South. New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010.


March 6, 2018
by jhtalmadge

Eastern Mayhaw

Eastern Mayhaw

Crataegus aestivalis


I was not aware of the mayhaw’s existence until I started working for a nursery in Louisiana about 20 years ago. After a dinner party, a co-worker’s wife gave me my first mason jar of delicious mayhaw jelly and I’ve been a fan ever since. The people of Louisiana are so serious about their love of mayhaw jelly that they made it the state jelly by proclamation. They have also set up a special organization, the Louisiana Mayhaw Association, just to promote the production and consumption of mayhaw berries. There are even festivals celebrating the time of year when mayhaws are fruiting, and isn’t that just like the good people of Louisiana, they never turn down any reason to celebrate.


The mayhaw is a member of the Hawthorn family. It grows as a medium-sized deciduous tree or large shrub. It can reach 25 to 30 feet in height and spread after 20 years. Hawthorns are relatively long lived with some specimens living over 400 years. The mayhaw can have a productive fruiting life of over 50 years.

The leaves are 2 inches in length with a coarse texture. Leaves are deeply toothed and ovate or elliptical in shape. They are narrower at the tip and broader towards the base. Foliage turns bright yellow in the fall. Both the leaves and branches are held alternately. Branches can have 1- to 3-inch thorns. The pinkish-white, cup-shaped flowers appear in late February to March and have 5 petals with 15 to 20 pink stamens. They are held in flat bottomed clusters 2- to 3-inches wide. Younger flowers have a fresh sweet scent, while older blooms smell like rotten fish to some people. The fruit are small, ½- to 1-inch pomes. Pome fruit are structured like pears and apples with a group of seeds in the center. Mayhaw berries are juicy and quite tart. The fruit look like small crabapples but taste more like a cranberry. Fruit are glossy red to yellow with white to yellow flesh and ripen in May thus the name, May hawthorn or mayhaw.

credit Karen M. Johnson

(illustrated by Karen M. Johnson)

Site Selection/Range/General Culture

Mayhaws grow along bodies of water, swamps, lowlands, in flood plains, and uplands. They range in zones 6 to 11 from Texas all the way around the Deep South up through the Carolinas and on into Virginia. Mayhaws are regularly cold hardy down to 15-degrees Fahrenheit and have survived temperatures down to -25-degrees Fahrenheit. They prefer 8 hours per day of full sun, but will tolerate moderate shade, although this can limit their fruit production. If the soil is well drained, mayhaws can tolerate soils too moist for most other fruit trees. They can adapt to a wide variety of soil pH levels and soil profiles but prefer a slightly acid, loamy, moisture-retentive soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5.


Mayhaw trees are low maintenance plants, but water them weekly during dry periods their first year while getting established. They will be somewhat drought tolerant in ensuing years. But, it is best to avoid drought stress since this can affect their growth rate and fruit yields, as well as making them more susceptible to diseases and insects.


When first planting seedling mayhaws, it is good to apply a root stimulator and a teaspoon of 20-20-20 slow-release fertilizer in with each plant. The next year, your trees should be given ½ pound of 5-10-10 slow- release fertilizer in late February, ¼ pound of 5-10-10 in late March and another ¼ pound application in May. Established 2- to 3-year old trees should get 1 pound of 5-10-10 slow-release fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter in early March and receive a repeat application in late August. To protect the roots from burning, don’t apply the late summer application if there are drought conditions. Beginning the fourth year, give your trees a well-balanced fertilizer like 10-10-10 every other year. Apply each application of fertilizer evenly around the tree while taking special care not to broadcast any fertilizer within 10 inches of the trunk.

Pruning & Training

In a home orchard setting, mayhaws need little training other than initially pruning them up into a single trunk and removing the branches lower than 4 or 5 feet for easier access when harvesting. In ensuing years, simple prune them annually in late winter to open the canopy to ensure better fruit production. Also, periodically trim the suckers that pop up at the base of the trunks and clean up weeds, as well as debris underneath your trees. Space your trees 15 to 20 feet apart in rows with 18 to 20 feet between rows when planning an orchard.


Plant at least two trees for maximum fruit production since cross-pollination is necessary. Flies and midges are drawn to the extremely sweet scent of the blooms and are responsible for pollination of most mayhaws.


These trees can be propagated by seed, softwood cuttings, hardwood cuttings, and root cuttings. Unlike most other fruit trees, mayhaws usually grow true to variety from seed. So, seed are the most common choice of commercial growers. Since 12 to 18 weeks of cold treatment (stratification) are needed for germination, seeds should be planted in refrigerated moist sand or direct field planted in the fall.

The next best form of propagating mayhaws is softwood stem cuttings.  With an application of rooting hormone, softwood cuttings can easily be rooted under mist or in a sweat tent. Although, hardwood and root cuttings can be done, they are not preferred because they are slow to root-out. Cleft or whip grafts are employed when propagating newer cultivars or larger trees. Mayhaws can be used as a rootstock for any other hawthorn, especially when planting in a wet location.

Pests & Diseases/ General Problems

Native mayhaws naturally have superior disease resistance, but when stressed by drought, fire, or other stressors they can fall prey to diseases such as cedar-apple rust, fire blight, powdery mildew, and leaf spot. Also, pests such as scale, apple borers, plum curculio, hawthorn lace bug, whiteflies, tent caterpillars, mealy bugs, Japanese beetles, and aphids can pose a threat to young mayhaw trees.

Use an all-purpose fruit tree spray containing fungicide, insecticide, and miticide in early spring once insects and diseases become active. If using your trees solely for fruit production, then use natural pesticides like insecticidal soap and pyrethrins. Spray a streptomycin product if fire blight becomes a problem in late spring or early summer. If the fire blight symptoms continue, prune out any infected limbs and burn them. During the winter, spray a light horticultural oil to control scale and other insects. Don’t spray horticultural oil during the growing season after the leaf and flower buds have started to swell otherwise you can do damage to your tree.

 Harvest & Storage

Mayhaws ripen in late April or May and should be allowed to ripen fully on the tree before harvesting. The mayhaws can be harvested by hand. But, the easiest method is to wait until at least 80% of the fruit are ripe, and then place a tarp, an old sheet, or a parachute under the tree and vigorously shake the tree. Gather the cloth from under the tree and roll the fruit into a basket or bowl. Since the rainy late spring is harvest time, boats or canoes may be necessary to harvest fruit grown in flood plains or near rivers. The fruit can be skimmed off the water’s surface with a pool net if this is the case. The fruit is not considered to be good for fresh eating, but is usually processed soon after harvest into jelly or juices. If there isn’t time to process the fruit immediately after harvest, the fruit can be stored refrigerated in an air-tight container, dried, frozen, or kept as a juice for months. Yields can vary widely depending on the variety, age, and size of the tree. A 20-year old tree can yield as much as 15 to 30 gallons of fruit per year.

Culinary Uses

The mayhaw is best known for its jelly, a southern delicacy, which is said to be the best in the world. Although, not exceedingly popular for fresh eating because of their bland to tart flavor. There are many other ways that mayhaws can be utilized such as flavoring alcoholic beverages like wines, beers, brandies and, that southern favorite, moonshine. They can also be baked in pastries or made into sauces, vinegars, mayhaw butter, fruit leather, syrups, and juices. The Native Americans dried and pressed them into small cakes with other berries like juneberries.

Nutritional Benefits

Hawthorn berries and mayhaws have long been recognized for their ability to regulate blood pressure by dilating blood vessels, reduce angina pains, improve circulation, and prevent atherosclerosis by reducing plaques caused by the build-up of cholesterol. They are a good source for the vitamins C, B-complex, choline, inositol, PABA, vitexin, catechins, flavonoids, bioflavonoids, and saponins. They are also rich in various anthocyanins which can act as antioxidants to ward-off the damage from free radicals. These berries can also be used to treat intestinal infections, improve the immune system in general, and increases stamina. A tea can be made with the berries. Drinking the tea twice a day is said to promote heart health.

Other Uses

The mayhaw is not only a much-loved, native fruit tree, it can also be used as an ornamental, an erosion control plant, a butterfly attractor, a wildlife habitat, and as a windbreak. They make exceptional landscape ornamentals or edible landscape plants with their striking flowers, attractive foliage, and colorful fruit. They are good erosion control plants because their fibrous root systems can assist in stabilizing hillsides and river banks. Bees and butterflies are both attracted by the strong fragrance of their flowers. The mayhaw is a good shelter and food source for birds, as well as other wildlife. Hawthorns have been used as windbreaks for hundreds of years because of their dense branching and foliage. Native Americans and settlers used their long thorns as wooden needles to sew and make repairs to nets. Thorns were scorched, scrapped clean and then covered with beeswax to protect them. Once processed, these needles were strong enough to go through the thickest leather or even a metal can. This species strong, heavy wood makes durable handles for hammers and other hand tools. These trees can flourish in areas where other trees can’t live since they are flood tolerant, pollution tolerant and when well established, drought tolerant. Seedling mayhaws make an excellent rootstock for any other hawthorn variety.

Recommended Varieties/Related Varieties

There are upwards of 800 hawthorn varieties spread across the Northern Hemisphere. All hawthorns fruit in the fall except for the mayhaw which fruits in May. There are three mayhaw species in the continental United States. These are the western mayhaw (Crataegus opaca), the central mayhaw (Crataegus rufula), and the eastern mayhaw (Crataegus aestivalis). The eastern mayhaw is the species with which we are the most familiar with here in the Southeast. Eastern mayhaws have numerous hybridized varieties such as the following:

  • ‘Lori’: elongated, red skinned fruit.
  • ‘Red Champ’: Nearly 1-inch, dark red fruit. Very productive and fire blight resistant.
  • ‘Spectacular’: 4/5- to 1-inch fruit, needs a pollinator, variably productive, and fire blight resistant.
  • ‘Texas Star’: Large, red 4/5-inch fruit with yellow pulp. Good form, but susceptible to fire blight.
  • ‘Royal Star’: 3/4-inch fruit, very productive, thornless, and susceptible to fire blight.
  • ‘Maxine’: 4/5-inch, red fruit. good form, heavy producer, and very resistant to fire blight.
  • ‘Saline’: Large, red-skinned fruit. Late-blooming cultivar, good quality fruit.
  • Several western mayhaws hybrids have also been breed:
  • ‘Big Red’: Named after its characteristic large red fruit of good quality, late-blooming cultivar.
  • ‘T.O. Super Berry’: Named after the famous southern wild-fruit expert, T.O. Warren.

Hazards & Cautions

It is likely that the seeds and leaves are toxic if consumed in large quantities, both contain amygdalin, a precursor to hydrogen cyanide. It can cause side effects such as dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, and arrhythmia. Also, avoid the 1- to 3-inch long needle-like thorns on the branches.


A lot of progress has been made since people started bringing mayhaws up out of the swamps and put into cultivation about 30 years ago. Over the last few decades, great improvements in breeding for fruit size, fruit quality, cold-tolerance, yield, disease resistance, and harvest time have been made. Although named cultivars are still hard to find anywhere other than in commercial orchards, native mayhaws are starting to be carried in garden centers across the Southeast. With a boost from mayhaw-centric organizations like the Louisiana Mayhaw Association and the popular interest in edible native plants, the mayhaw may well become the only hawthorn species to ever become commercially successful.

References & External Links

  • Baker, Marty & McEachern, George R. Fruit & Nut Resource: Mayhaw. 1997.
  • Barney, Danny. Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Orchard Fruits. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2012.
  • Bennett, Chris. Southern Foraging. Portland. Timber Press. 2015.
  • Dean, Green. The Crataegus Clan: Food & Poison. 2012.
  • How to Grow Mayhaw. 2013.
  • Payne, Jerry A. & Krewer, Gerald W. 1990.
  • Kitsteiner, John. “Permaculture Plants: Mayhaw.” Temperate Climate Permaculture. Number 10. 10/20/13. Pp 23-27. 2013.
  • com/topics/lawn_garden/home_gardening/fruits_nuts/mayhaw-growers-innovative-expandindustry. Graham, Charles; Chaney, John & Pyzner, John R. 10/4/04.
  • com/nr/rdonlyres/1605BA84-EE88-4482-B9E6-4516372D5922/2175/pub2484mayhaw2.pdf. Patrick, Ruth. 2014.
  • The Forgotten Mayhaw. 2000.
  • Gray, A. & Walter, T. Plants for a Future: Mayhaw. 2012.
  • The Mayhaw Man – Popular Selections. 2004.

January 1, 2018
by jhtalmadge

American Wild Plum

American Wild Plum

Prunus americana

I ruined many white t-shirts harvesting wild plums when I was a boy. I would roll up the front of my         t-shirt forming a bowl-shaped container like a kangaroo’s pouch to carry the small plums home. This would both irritate and thrill my grandmother. She loved to make her delicious wild plum jelly, but not the stain removal involved later. In late summer, my friends and I would find a large thicket of wild plum trees. We would pick and eat until we had our fill. Then after getting numerous chigger bites, we would carry shirt-loads of fruit back to my house. My grandmother would then start pitting the plums, cooking them, steaming the canning jars, and filling them with jelly.

(illustrated by Karen M. Johnson)

(illustrated by Karen M. Johnson)


This large native shrub or small tree is a short-lived member of the Rosacea family like peaches and cherries. It is commonly known as the wild plum, American plum, goose plum, august plum, hog plum, hedge plum, and Marshall’s large yellow sweet plum. Wild plums are deciduous multi-stemmed shrubs or small single-trunk trees with a low, broad, spreading crown. These plum trees typically grow 15 to 25 feet in height with a 15- to 25-feet spread. The national champion in Fairfax County, Virginia, is 18-feet tall with an 18-foot spread and the trunk is 3.8 feet in diameter. Their finely serrated leaves are alternately arranged, oval to oblong, and 2 to 4 inches long by 1 to 2 inches wide. The leaves have a wrinkled, dark green appearance on top and are smooth with pale green coloration underneath. Their leaves have pointed tips and narrow bases. Leaves turn pale yellow to electric red in the fall. Their slender twigs are orange-brown to dark reddish-brown in color and are marked with tiny raised dots or lenticels. Some twigs are modified into large thorns up to 3 inches in length. The thin spreading branches are covered in a rough reddish-brown bark. The bark on the trunk starts out a smooth, shiny reddish-brown then turns grey to greyish-black with a scaly, rough texture as it ages.

The small, white five-petaled flowers of the wild plum appear in mid-spring before the leaves emerge. The showy, 1-inch flowers have a strong sweet fragrance that some people find offensive. Their flowers are arranged in clusters of 2 to 5 flowers called umbels. The small, round, 1-inch edible fruit appears in late summer to early fall. Technically, the fruit are drupes or stone fruits like peaches and mangos. When ripe, the reddish-yellow to purple fruit are covered in a powdery white bloom or yeast. They have a tough skin and a bright yellow tart-flavored pulp. Each plum has a large slightly flattened stone or pit with two ridges along each side. Inside each pit is a solitary seed.

The roots are shallow and widely spread beyond the drip line of each tree. Suckers are continually sent up from the roots forming dense thickets or colonies of trees if left undisturbed.

Site Selection/Range/General Culture

These native trees have adapted to a wide variety of habitats and soil types. But, they prefer full sun to partial shade and moist, well-drained, course to medium soils with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5. They range widely from zone 3 in central Canada to Arkansas, on southward to zone 8 in the panhandle of Florida, eastward to South Carolina and back northward to eastern Canada. Wild plums can be found growing along roadsides, by railways, alongside fencerows, in swamps, on rocky hillsides, in the moist edges of forests, and in abandoned fields.

Wild plums require little maintenance other than removing the numerous suckers that appear around the trees. They will grow up 2 feet per year when given the right conditions. They don’t like wet feet, fine soils, drought, forest fires, or too much shade. They produce more fruit when given at least 12 hours of bright sun but will tolerate as little as 30% shade. These fast-growing trees need lots of lateral space so plant them 8 to 10 feet from other plants in the landscape or on 18-foot centers when grown in an orchard.


Wild plums are drought tolerant and seldom need extra watering. They perform the best when kept on the dry side. When watering wild plum trees, water thoroughly and then wait until the top 2 inches of the soil is dry before watering again. At the other end of the spectrum, they will tolerate up to 3 days of flooding but if left wet they will get root rot.


Fertilization needs can vary with soil type and age of the tree. Plum trees are moderate feeders. Give young non-bearing or newly planted trees an application of 10-10-10 dry chemical fertilizer in early spring before their leaves appear. Spread 1 cup of 10-10-10 evenly in a 3-feet diameter area around the tree, but be careful not to place any fertilizer near the trunk of the tree. Make a second fertilizer application in mid-May through mid-July. This time using ½ cup of ammonium nitrate (33-0-0) broadcast evenly in a 3-feet diameter area around the tree.

The second year after the tree is established, fertilize the tree once in March and again in early August. The first application should be 1 cup of 10-10-10 per year of the tree’s age up to 12 cups for mature trees. The second application should be made no later than the second week of August otherwise you risk compromising the tree’s cold hardiness during the winter. This second application should be 1 cup of ammonium nitrate (33-0-0) per tree per year of the tree’s age up to 5 cups for mature trees. A rule of thumb is if an established tree has dark green leaves and it is producing 12 to 15 inches of shoot growth per year then it is receiving adequate fertilization. But, yearly soil tests are still recommended to monitor the fertilization level.

Pruning & Training

Wild American plums bear fruit all along their branches and will withstand heavy pruning. For the best fruit production, prune your trees to a short single trunk form. Let the trees go without much pruning for the first three years after planting, only do some light shaping. After 3 years of getting established, rejuvenate your trees by pruning out a few older branches every other year. Try to finish any pruning by the end of July so as not to disturb flower or fruit bud production for the next year. It will also be necessary to pull or dig up the many suckers or root sprouts these plants produce each year. In an orchard situation, wild plum trees are top-sheared to keep them short enough to be conveniently picked thus limiting labor costs.





Wild plums depend on cross-pollination from other wild plums and honeybees are the primary pollinators. Wild plums are also good pollinizers for hybrid plum trees that bloom about the same time. Most wild plum trees do not form viable seeds until their 4th or 5th year.


If large numbers of plants are needed, then seeds should be your choice of propagation. The downside of propagating by seed is the irregular variation of fruit quality and other characteristics. Whereas, using softwood cuttings or root sprouts, produces a truer duplication of the parent plant. When propagating by seed, harvest fully ripe fruit in late August from trees with the best tasting fruit and remove the pulp from around the pits. Air-dry the pits for several days. Then, use a pair of vise-grips to crack the pits and remove the seeds. As a viability test, place the seeds in a glass of water. The seeds that sink to the bottom are the good viable seeds. Evenly space the viable seeds on a moist paper towel or on toilet paper. Loosely roll up the paper and put the roll in a plastic baggie. Refrigerate the roll of seeds for about 2 to 3 months and then check for germination. Plant the germinated seeds individually into small plastic cups, 4-inch pots or 36-cell plug flats. Seedlings will attain suitable size to plant-up into 3-gallon pots or in the field or the landscape in 1 to 2 years. It will be another 2 to 3 years before you will harvest any fruit from your young trees. Another less effective method is to sow the seeds directly in the field in early fall thus the seeds can have 3 to 6 months of cold stratification to break dormancy. The seedlings produced by either method will not necessarily have the same fruit quality or growth characteristics of the parent plants.

Softwood cuttings are another form of wild plum propagation and should be taken in early summer when there is the most active growth. Cuttings 6- to 12-inches long with at least 2 nodes will make the best clones of the selected plant. Strip off the lower leaves and dip the cuttings in rooting hormone. Then, plant the cuttings about 1- to 2-inches deep in rooting trays of sand or rooting mix. Place the trays in a greenhouse with 60% shade. Mist the cuttings several times a day until new leaves and 1-inch roots begin to appear. Then, shift the rooted cuttings into quart or one-gallon containers of standard soil mix and reduce watering.

Root sprouts or suckers are the easiest method by which to propagate wild plums. Root sprouts about 8- to 12-inches tall can be easily dug up by cutting them from the main root and leaving 3 to 4 inches of fibrous roots attached. These young plantlets can be directly potted up into quart or 1-gallon pots of standard potting mix. Once established, they can be transplanted into a larger pot or planted in the field.

Pests, Diseases, and Other Problems

Although significantly resistant to most pest and diseases, wild plums can succumb to pests such as aphids, scale, beetle borers, American plum borers, tent caterpillars, spider mites, and plum curculios. Diseases that can attack wild plums are black knot, sooty mold, verticillium, canker, brown rot on fruit, mildew, stem decay, fire blight, and leaf spot. Wild plums can even be an over-wintering host to plum curculio and brown rot. Thus, posing a threat to local commercial peach or plum growers by possibly causing spring infestations. Birds are not usually a problem due to the large size of the fruit, but deer, foxes and coyotes love them. The profuse suckering of this tree can make it undesirable for commercial landscaping because of the excessive maintenance problem involved.


Harvest & Storage

When foraging for wild plums in the wild, keep in mind that fruit quality can vary from tree to tree. So, sample the fruit first before fully harvesting from a selected tree. Picking the fruit by hand is preferable to shaking the fruit onto a tarp because plums can be easily bruised or split. Fruit will turn from green to yellow to red with a light whitish bloom as they are ripening. When fully ripe, the plums will simply come off in your hand without pulling. The best way to store your harvest is to freeze the plums in small batches as you pick them from August through October. Once the harvest season is complete, partially thaw the plums, this will make them much less difficult to pit. Use a cherry pitter to remove the pits as they are about the same size as those of cherries. After pitting, press the plums through a food mill to remove the bitter skins. The resulting puree can be used in many cooked goods or frozen again for long term storage or dried into fruit leather.

Culinary Uses

The tart flavorsome fruit can be eaten fresh or processed into jams, jellies, wines, syrups, and sauces. If making jelly or jam, you will need to add pectin, since they don’t contain much of their own pectin. These plums can be baked in pies, tarts, breads, cakes, cobblers, crumbles, and muffins. They can also be made into vinegars or pickled. Although their flesh can be tart with a tannic after-taste, many chefs are discovering that their flavor can offer a balance to other rich foods. Wild plums can be substituted for blueberries in some recipes, but keep in mind less liquid will be needed since plums are juicier than blueberries.

Nutritional Benefits

An extensive array of health benefits is attributed to wild plums. Their fruit are an amazing mix of vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and phytonutrients. They contain vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin E, and the B-complex vitamins. They also have anti-oxidants like beta-carotene and flavonoids. Many minerals are also present in the fruit such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, and copper. Whether the fruit are eaten fresh or dried (prunes), they are both high in dietary fiber.

Because of their abundant nutrients, wild plums can help strengthen the immune system, treat infections, and promote both nerve and skin health. Research has proven that regular consumption of plums is helpful in the normal formation of blood cells, blood clotting, and overall maintenance of cardiovascular health. Eating plum fruit effectively protects against cognitive impairment due to old age and assists in elevating good cholesterol (HDL) levels, as well as, decreasing bad cholesterol (LDL). But, the most well-known health benefit of dried plums and prune juice is in acting as a laxative relieving constipation.



 Other Uses

Wild plums have been used for erosion control because they have extensive suckering root systems. Their root systems can also aid in stabilizing roadsides, banks of rivers, and drainage ditches. These small thicket-forming trees have also been used as windbreaks to shield homesteads and pastures from high winds. Because of their showy white blooms, short stature, and despite the extra maintenance needed to prune root sprouts, the wild plum has been used as an ornamental plant in residential landscapes.

Native Americans not only used wild plums as a food source, but also to make three different dyes. A green dye was made from the leaves, a dark grey dye was made from the fruit, and a red dye was obtained from the roots. Native Americans produced a decoction from the inner bark which they used to treat oral sores, skin abrasions, digestive problems, and throat infections. The blooms were used to treat sore gums, loose teeth, and mouth ulcers. Brooms for sweeping were also created by native peoples by binding wild plum twigs together.

Wild plums are an excellent habitat for wildlife. Birds such as quail and wild turkeys use them for breeding cover, roosting, nesting, and as a food source. Squirrels, foxes, coyotes, white-tailed deer, and black bears eat plums, as well as, the twigs and leaves. The wild plum is also a nectar plant. They attract moths, bees, and butterflies.

Wild plums make excellent rootstock for other hybrid plum varieties. Plum wood is prized for its heavy, strong, close-grained structure.

Recommended & Related Varieties

Over 260 varieties have been developed from the American wild plum and it has been extensively hybridized with commercial plum varieties. Many Prunus species have been crossed with the wild plum for some of its desirable characteristics and to introduce cold hardiness.  For example, ‘Robusto’ plum has wild plum in its breeding for disease resistance. The three American native plums closely-related to the American Wild Plum (Prunus americana) are the Beach Plum (Prunus maritima), the Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia), and the Canada Plum (Prunus nigra). Prunus x orthosepala is a product of a natural cross between Chickasaw Plum and American Wild Plum. Some examples of commercially cultivated wild plum varieties are ‘Toka’, ‘Tecumseh’, ‘Pipestone’, ‘Fairlane ‘, ‘Underwood’, ‘Blackhawk’, ‘Desoto’, ‘Hawkeye’, ‘Klondike’, and ‘Waneta’

Hazards & Cautions

Wild plums have toxic substances in all parts of the plant except the fruit’s skin and flesh like many other Prunus species such as cherries and peaches. They contain a precursor to cyanide called hydrocyanic acid which can breakdown into cyanide once consumed.

Children are cautioned to avoid the large thorns on the terminal branches of some trees. Consuming large quantities of fresh plums can cause gastric upset and diarrhea.





In conclusion, these indigenous fruit trees with their ease of care, their many nutritional benefits, their productivity, and their attractive ornamental appearance, need to be utilized more as ornamental landscape plants, commercial orchard plants and at least be recognized as accessible foraging food sources.



  • Arche Wild Native Nurseries – Quakertown, PA –
  • Flora Exotica – Montreal, Quebec –
  • Native Forest Nursery – Chatsworth, GA –
  • One Green World – Portland, OR –

References & External Links

  • Boning, Charles. Florida’s Best Fruiting Plants. Sarasota: Pineapple Press, 2006.
  • Brill, Steve. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild Places. New York: Harper, 1994.
  • Creasy, Rosalind. Edible Landscaping. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2010.
  • us/docs/other/HenryKaiser2000-wildplumplantingguide.pdf. Wild Plum, December 12, 2000.
  • org/user/Plant.aspex?LatinName=Prunus+Americana. Marshall. Prunus Americana, July 17, 2011.
  • Reich, Lee. Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. Hong Kong: Timber Press, 2004.
  • Otto, Stella. The Backyard Orchardist. Empire, MI: Chelsea Greene Publishing, 2016.
  • http:// Prunus americana. March 27, 2014.