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Nuts

Most so-called nuts are actually fruits or seeds. The majority of them never make it to the United States or Europe, but help to sustain people in developing countries.

Sesame

Sesame, Sesamum indicum, is a flowering annual plant with numerous wild cultivars in Africa, as well as some in India and Pakistan.  It is now grown in tropical regions worldwide and cultivated for its highly nutritious seeds that grow in pods.  The flowers of the sesame plant are usually yellow, though some cultivars are blue or purple.  The seeds themselves can vary in color from creamy-white to black. 

Peanut

Peanut, Arachis hypogaea, is not a nut but a legume.  However, as it is so universally used as a nut, and as most people refer to it as a “nut,” I’ve included it here.  Native to Mexico, Central and South America, the peanut’s shell is, botanically, the fruit, and the peanut itself is a seed.  It appears that it was initially domesticated in Argentina or Bolivia and there is evidence that in prehistoric times it was domesticated in Peru.  It made its way to Mesoamerica well before the

Candlenut

Candlenut, Aleurites moluccanus, is native to the Indo-Malaysia region and was introduced in ancient times throughout the Pacific islands and into Asia.  It now grows in much of the tropical world.

The candlenut is eaten in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisines, usually ground and made into sauces.  It is also used in traditional Hawaiian cuisine.  Candlenuts are sometimes substituted for macadamia nuts when they aren’t available, but the candlenut is much

Jatropha

Jatropha, curcus, is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family, a large group of shrubs and trees native to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.  It is variously known as “physic nut,” and “pinoncillo.”  Most varieties of these small trees have highly toxic elements but the variety native to Veracruz, Mexico, is apparently less toxic than most.  It is a very hardy plant, drought tolerant, and capable of growing in poor soil.  It produces fruits within two years of planting.  The fruits contain seeds with a high oil content.  The Mexican variety of Jatropha produces seeds that can be roasted and eaten.  However, the seeds are more valuable for use in bio-diesel.  The press cake left over from pressing the oil is useful as animal feedstock or fertilizer. 

Jatropha trees were taken by the Portuguese to Africa and Asia originally for use as hedges.  Jatropha is now intercropped with other plants, such as

Souari

Souari, Caryocar nuciferum, is a large, elegant tree from Panama and Northern South America that produces a coconut-sized fruit with four nuts inside, surrounded by edible flesh.  The nuts are allegedly “warty,” with red, hard-shelled, kidney-shaped nuts.  They are similar in texture to the Brazil nut, but with a more almond-like flavor, and are said to be oily and delicious.  Unfortunately, they do not grow in abundance and are often grown and cut for their fine hardwood, so most of us will probably never experience a souari nut.  If you do, please let me know what you think of them.

Macadamia

Macadamia, Macadamia integrifolia, and Macadamia tetraphylla, (also spelled macademia) are medium evergreen trees, growing to 25 – 30 feet.  They are members of the protea family and come from tropical Eastern Australia, New Caledonia and Sulawesi.  Only two of the several species of the Macadamia family are used commercially.  All other species are poisonous or inedible.  The indigenous people of Australia have used macadamias for thousands of years, leaching the nuts of the toxic species to remove the cyanogenic glycocides in order to make the nuts edible.

Trees are mostly grown from grafts and do not produce nuts for seven to ten years.  Once they produce, they may continue to bear nuts for

Cashew

Cashew, Anacardium occidentale, is native to the tropical forests in Northeastern Brazil. The nut is actually a seed, but because it is attached to a pseudofruit, it is called a nut, which sounds nonsensical.  The Portuguese named the fruit of the cashew tree, “caju,” from the indigenous Tupi word, acajú.  The tree is now widely grown in the tropics for both the nuts (seeds) and the cashew apples (pseudofruit).

The cashew is a small evergreen tree growing to about 35 feet.  The cashew apple is actually an

Brazil Nuts

Brazil Nut Fruit and SeedsBrazil Nut, Bertholletia excelsa, is native to Brazil, Venezuela, the Guianas, Eastern Columbia, Peru and Bolivia.  It grows in scattered forests along the banks of the Amazon, Orinoco and Rio Negro rivers.  The Brazil tree is enormous, one of the largest in the Amazon rainforest, growing to 150 feet.  Additionally, it lives to well over 500 years, sometimes as long as 1000 years.  The trees cannot be effectively grown in plantations, as they need specific bees as pollinators.  Hand pollination is impossible, due to the trees being so tall, with long straight trunks and branches that start high in the forest canopy, and the fact that the flowers bloom only briefly once a year.

It gets more complicated.  The Brazil tree has flowers that need to be uncoiled in order to be pollinated and, similar to orchids, the pollinator must be

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For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see "Why is Vanilla so Expensive?"

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