It's not just leaves falling from our trees this season! RSPB Scotland's Molly Martin shares tips and tricks for identifying some common nuts you find in autumn as well as some interesting facts.
Bonkers for conkers
If you’ve taken a walk in a wood, through a park, or down a street at this time of year, you may have noticed some trees are dropping not just their leaves, but something altogether more exciting. Often concealed in a spikey shell, smooth and shiny nuts are impossible to resist. But how confident are you in identifying what you’ve just put in your pocket? This handy guide will help you distinguish between five common nuts you can find in autumn.
Conkers are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, and are found in parks, streets, and gardens across the UK. Conkers fall to the ground in bright green spiky shells, which split open revealing their shining mahogany seeds. Once plucked out of the soft cream-coloured lining, a second or even third conker may be found inside. They can be perfectly round or have a satisfyingly smooth flat edge.
There are rumours that conkers keep away spiders, although this has not been proven, they could however, keep moths from eating your clothes. Conkers are mildly poisonous to humans and most other animals, but can be eaten by deer, and in small numbers by squirrels, with forgotten caches leading to fresh saplings. Chemicals found in conkers are antibacterial and can be used to make soaps or laundry detergent- favoured by the Vikings for their weekly bath!
A very recognisable sign of autumn, the humble acorn comes in a range of colours and sizes. Nestled in a stalked half-cup, acorns drop from oak trees. Several species of oak have long been found across the UK, and English oak alone is the second most common tree found in the UK. Acorns are an important food source for many animals, including squirrels, badgers, mice, jays, blackbirds and weevils. Jays have been credited with the spread of oak trees following the last ice age, as they often bury more acorns than they can remember the locations of. Acorns are also edible to humans once the tannins have been removed, and can be roasted, made into flour, or even coffee
Beechnuts are small, triangular seeds, sometimes called mast, that fall from beech trees. You can find them loose or in a pair contained within a woody, prickly case. The inside of this is a beautiful golden colour, and almost velvety. The case peels open into four segments when the nuts are ripe, and after soaking and peeling the nuts are tasty (in moderation), raw or roasted. Mice, voles, squirrels and birds all munch on beechnuts in autumn.
In ‘mast years’, beech produce a bumper crop of seeds, and the floor becomes a crunchy sea of cases. This is thought to ensure that animals eating beechnuts leave enough seeds to grow into trees.
The cases of these nuts are by far the spikiest of any on this list. Almost completely round and viciously sharp, these clustered green balls can be carefully opened to find the treasure within. Sweet chestnuts are best known for roasting at Christmas, and are easily recognisable by their deep red/brown skin, and flattened oval shape. Once roasted, the starchy nuts are delicious in sweet or savoury dishes, such as stuffing, soups, nut roasts, or mixed into cake fillings. Sweet chestnuts are the only nut which contains vitamin C. A favourite of red squirrels, the nuts are also eaten by many micro-moth species.
Cobnuts or filberts are the wild type of hazelnuts, grown from a native tree found all over the UK. Cobnuts are smooth and feel slightly furry, and grow in small clusters; each nut wrapped in a leafy, papery ruff. They are most often found green and under-ripe, as they are a very valuable and highly sought-after autumn food source for many species.
Dormice are particularly associated with this tree and are sometimes called hazel dormice. They gorge on the nuts before hibernating, and will wake in the spring to eat caterpillars which feed on hazel leaves. Lots of other small mammals favour cobnuts, along with nuthatches, woodpeckers, tits, and jays. The hole left in the shell is different depending on which animal has eaten it, and a good way of surveying what’s foraging in the area. Carrying a hazelnut as a charm has been rumoured to bring good luck, and cure rheumatism (hmmm...).
Cobnuts ripen as the leaves start to change colour, and are best foraged for eating just as the nuts turn from green to brown, as the papery husk starts to peel away. The hard shell can be cracked, and a delicious nut uncovered. These can be eaten raw, roasted and added to butter, or milled into a flour.
PLEASE FORAGE RESPONSIBLY, LEAVING ENOUGH FOR WILDLIFE WHO RELY ON THIS FOOD FOR THEIR SURVIVAL OVER WINTER.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654