Staple crops are the basis of our everyday diets, the foods we eat all year round that it’s hard to imagine doing without—things like flour and sugar. Max Paschall, an arborist in Pennsylvania, thinks these staple crops could come from shrubs and trees.
In fact, he thinks hazelnuts could make a big impact.
“There’s some really phenomenal work happening around them where they have this potential to be truly a staple crop of carbohydrates and oil for our entire agricultural system. You know just imagine a perennial source of carbohydrates.”
It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not what we’re used to. But breeders have been working since the 1990s to cross larger, better yielding European hazelnuts with smaller but blight resistant American hazelnuts and they’re finally getting somewhere.
The goal is to jump-start a hazelnut industry on the East Coast for everyone from backyard growers to large farms. Another group of native nut trees that Paschall thinks have staple crop potential are species in the hickory genus:
“So a hickory it’s related to pecans and it honestly tastes even better and they’re native from Canada all the way down to Florida so they have this enormous range and this incredible diversity of species within just the hickory genus. And they produce just incredible food. And so when John Bartram the botanist from the Philadelphia was traveling around the south and staying in Native American houses he recorded just floor to ceiling piles of hickory nuts in the wintertime.”
Hickory nuts were an important winter staple for many indigenous tribes when Bartram did his work in the 1700s, and there are other accounts from that time period and later on describing how indigenous people ground hickory nuts, boiled them, and strained the mixture to make a nut milk. The nuts were also eaten plain and made into soups and stews. Since then, hickory nuts have fallen out of favor, but today, some growers are crossing hickory nuts with pecans to produce a hybrid nut called—you guessed it!—a hican.
"When you cross them together they can produce a nut the size of your cell phone. When you see it in person you can’t believe what you’re holding and that’s a crop that has almost no breeding done to it. And so there’s a lot of potential there too that frankly I’m really excited to see where it goes,” said Paschall.
Another native staple tree crop Paschall is excited about is the honey locust.
“It’s a native nitrogen-fixing tree that produces these long bean pods. And it was actually one of the staple crops of the Cherokee, you know archaeologists even use populations of honey locust in the wild to find where historic Cherokee village sites were. And so they were bred over thousands of years by indigenous farmers to have huge pods with high sugar content.”
The honey locust’s range is centered on the Midwest, but it’s naturalized in New England and as far north as Nova Scotia. The pods are between 30 and 40 percent sugar content.
‘Which is truly incredible especially when you consider that sugar cane itself is only 15% sugar. So this is an incredible resource and an incredible source of sucrose in a temperate climate and it’s a tree that fixes nitrogen so it even improves the soil around it. And I think that is really a centerpiece of any future agroforestry system in our climate.”
It’s a huge shift to imagine getting staple foods like flours and sweeteners from trees. But it’s not new, and it also makes a lot of sense given all the environmental challenges we face. And because of how quickly our climate is changing—planting food producing trees at the northernmost edges of their range is one way of working toward food security in the future.