July 9, 2015
by Carol Bornstein
Photo by Carol Bornstein Squirrels and humans have something in common – both love nuts. If you skip the added salt and oil, these tasty “fruits” are good for you, too. And if you are interested in foraging – with permission and proper identification, of course - several of California’s native trees and shrubs offer up some mighty flavorful nuts. Just ask the squirrels! For centuries, Native American tribes throughout California have harvested native hazelnuts, pine nuts, and walnuts. Birds, squirrels, and other wildlife also feast upon these nutritious foods. Here in the Los Angeles Basin, southern California black walnuts (Juglans californica) are still relatively easy to find in the Santa Monica Mountains, growing among coast live oak, toyon, elderberry, sycamore, and other woodland or chaparral vegetation. This deciduous tree is an important food source for Western gray squirrels (Sciurus griseus) and ground squirrels, and many kinds of birds use cavities in older trees as nesting sites. It is ironic that wild populations of this native tree, so widely used as rootstock for commercial walnut orchards, are threatened by urbanization. Recognizing this, the city of Los Angeles added southern California black walnut to its short list of protected tree species in 2006.
If you visit the museum’s Nature Gardens, you can see a thriving young tree just east of the bird-viewing platform (see map above for location, indicated by the yellow arrow). We planted it two years ago from a 15-gallon container and since then it has tripled in size (although at one point we almost lost it thanks to Eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) chewing on the tender trunk). Imagine my surprise when I noticed a crop of young walnuts on our tree this past spring. Six round, bright green nuts were beginning to ripen among the leafy branches. What fun! A couple weeks later, only three were left. Suspecting that the squirrels were helping themselves, we tied protective cloth bags around the remaining nuts so that visitors would have a chance to see mature walnuts on the tree. Well, somehow a squirrel managed to get two more nuts, further evidence that the Nature Gardens are indeed habitat for wildlife! Even if the solo remaining walnut disappears, we are confident that the tree will produce another, bigger crop next year. It would be fun to use the husks for dye and to share the oil-rich nutmeats with some lucky visitors.