The mystery of the nutless nuts

The mystery of the nutless nuts

Like many an urban forager, I’m always on the lookout for free eats that are unravaged by pigeons, foxes, crows or dogs. So when I spotted these spiky pods enclosing shiny hazelnuts under a tree near where I live in Balham, I thought I’d hid the nut jackpot.

Oddly, though, I’d walked past that tree every day for years, but had never seen it produce nuts before. And – weirdly – the neighbourhood squirrels hadn’t yet discovered them. Curiouser and curiouser…

Cloak and dagger

Under cover of darkness (who doesn’t like a bit of cloak and dagger intrigue, even if it’s completely unnecessary?) I gathered as many nuts as I could and started planning what to make with them. I could make an autumnal chickpea and hazelnut soup. Or add them to a squash risotto. Or to sautéed sprout tops from the farmers’ market. Or just crack them, smugly, and eat them.

What’s the point of these nutless nuts?

Doesn’t contain nuts

So imagine my disappointment when I cracked the nuts open to reveal… nothing! There were no kernels inside those tough shells. No wonder the squirrels had turned up their twitchy little noses at them.

The mystery (partly) explained

Frustrated in my nutlessness, I went into Sherlock mode and discovered a few interesting things about the tree in question. It turns out it’s a Turkish hazelnut (Corylus colurna) and that it only fruits every 2-3 years. So that explains why I’d not seen the nuts before (I’ve only lived nearby for three years).
And because it’s tolerant of urban environments, it’s frequently planted as a ‘street tree’ as Wikipedia puts it (not sure the tree would approve of such a Dickensian moniker). The nuts themselves have very hard shells, says Wikipedia – which is true; I nearly had to resort to a sledgehammer to crack this nut.
But what it doesn’t explain is why a tree would produce empty nuts. What’s the point? Just to annoy squirrels? Or credulous urban foragers for that matter? Or maybe it’s for people who like the idea of nuts but are allergic to them?

Please tell me…

If anyone can explain the mystery of the nutless nuts, please let me know. In the meantime, I’m off to the shops to get some nuts…

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