Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Seed Morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy on Nuts!

Wolfgang Stuppy's posts on the Millennium Seed Bank blog are always worth reading but this post will surprise many who may never have seen how cashews grow, nor read about this much loved nut.

All text and images are the IP of Stuppy and KEW Millennium Seed Bank. I have reblogged this from the July 24 post on this page.

NB: I was privileged last October to work and live onsite at the MSB over three weeks where Wolgang was the contact person for the residency period, so this is not the first time I have posted on his work or that of the many wonderful people at the MSB. Please visit the page highlighted above to read more of the MSB blog posts and gain comprehensive overview of the entire project through hundreds of pages of links.


Love nuts? Love seeds! But which one is the tastiest of all?

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 24/07/2012

After previously exploring colourful, enigmatic, poisonous and sadistic seeds, in his new blog, Wolfgang goes nuts about nuts.

I absolutely love nuts! They are healthy, taste great and being a Seed Morphologist, I obviously have a very special relationship with them. This last is fueled by the strange awareness that every time I eat a nut, I eat an embryo. Yuk? Well, read on!
To me, the most delicious nut of all is the cashew. No other nut can match its fine flavour and soft creamy texture. If you are also nuts about nuts, you will undoubtedly know cashews, even if you (incomprehensibly) prefer macadamias, pistachios or Brazil nuts. I wonder, though, how many people know the plant that cashew nuts come from and about the unusual and amazing appearance of the actual fruit they are borne in. Hence this blog. . .   
Cashew fruits
The vibrantly colourful fruits of the cashew tree, Anacardium occidentale

 Cashew apples and cashew nuts
Cashew nuts grow on trees with large, beautiful, bright green leaves. Nowadays cultivated and naturalised almost all over the tropics, the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale, Anacardiaceae) is originally native to the coastal plains of north-eastern Brazil, where it forms part of the so-called restinga* vegetation. Long before European colonisation in the sixteenth century, Brazilian Indians relished the delicious fruits. Called ‘acajú’ by people of the Tupi tribe, the name was converted by the Portuguese into ‘cajú’ which eventually became ‘cashew’ in English. 
Cashew Tree
A cultivated cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale) in Brazil

Cashew flowers
Young cashew fruits with their stalks starting to swell, top right: flowers 
From very humble, tiny, first white, then pink, flowers rather large, brightly coloured (there are orange-red and yellow varieties) and somewhat weird-looking fruits arise. When ripe they resemble a very soft pear with a hard, kidney-shaped nut tucked in at one end. The pear-like part, also called ‘cashew apple’ (whoever came up with that name has never seen an apple next to a pear!) is extremely juicy and easily squashed which is why you can’t find them in our supermarkets. In Brazil I have seen them offered at roadside stalls where they were carefully displayed in egg trays. 
Cashew fruits on the tree
Ripe cashew fruits on the tree  
Cashes fruits in egg tray
'Cashew apples' are so soft, they need to be treated like raw eggs (here in a roadside stall in Lindóia, Brazil) 
Hard sell methods aside, what’s most unusual about the cashew fruit is that the fleshy bit is not formed by the swollen ovary of the flower as in ‘normal’ fleshy fruits. Rather, the cashew apple is formed by the hugely swollen stalk of the flower which is why you wouldn’t find any seeds in it. If you want to find the seed you must open the fertile part that is formed by the ovary of the flower, namely the hard, kidney-shaped ‘appendix’, better known as the ‘cashew nut’.

Image 007_Cashew apple section
A longitudinal section of a 'cashew apple' proves its origin from the flower stalk; there are no seeds, just flesh 

Ever had to stuff your mouth with a cotton ball soaked in milk?

Sounds delicious but here’s a word of warning to those who love to travel in the tropics. If you ever encounter a fruit-laden cashew tree, restrain your enthusiasm, at least for the ‘nutty’ bit. Whilst the amazingly succulent cashew pear, err... apple, is harmless and best enjoyed by sucking out the sweet juice and discarding the stringy-fibrous residue, the shell of the cashew nut is poisonous owing to an acrid phenolic oil, called urushiol. Urushiol causes dermatitis which is why the cashew nut was once also called ‘blister nut’. The same nasty oily chemical is found in other members of the Anacardiaceae. Among these close relatives of the cashew tree are notorious plants such as the poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) and poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens & T. diversilobum) but also mango (Mangifera indica; urushiol is found in the sap and fruit peel!).

If you try to crack a fresh cashew nut with your teeth, you will soon be blessed with a painful blistering rash in and around your mouth (if it’s any comfort, the pain can be soothed by stuffing your mouth with a cotton ball soaked in milk). That’s also the reason why you will never find unshelled cashew nuts on supermarket shelves whereas other nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios are quite often sold ‘whole’. 
Image 008_roasting cashew nuts
How to prepare 'home-grown' cashew nuts: roasting the nuts in a fire destroys the poison and the charred shells can easily be removed

 Why cashew nuts are expensive
Because of the problems caused by the toxic shell of the nut, Latin Americans, West Indians and West Africans have long used only the succulent ‘cashew apple’ making it into wine and refreshing beverages, similar to lemonade, such as the Brazilian ‘cajuado’. However, on a worldwide scale the seed of the cashew tree is still the main commercial product, despite the laborious cleaning process that makes cashew nuts one of the most expensive of all nuts (although in the UK macadamias cost a lot more than cashews). The safest way to enjoy ‘home-grown’ cashew nuts is to roast them in a fire and then remove the charred shell as shown in the pictures above.
In the wild, the brightly coloured, 5-10 cm long cashew apple acts as a tasty reward for the animals it needs for seed dispersal. Fruit bats, monkeys and bats pick the fruits to feed on the yellow- to scarlet-coloured apple but discard the poisonous nut, leaving the seed inside unharmed. 
Image 009_bag of cashew nuts
Cashew nuts off the supermarket shelf as we all know and love them

About eating embryos
Every nut contains a seed and as such, logically, also an embryo (i.e. a little baby plant that ‘hatches’ from the seed upon germination). Therefore, every time you eat a nut, you eat an embryo. But this is not like eating a microscopically small embryo when you eat a chicken egg. The edible part of the nuts we eat as nibbles consists of nothing else but the embryo. Here’s an experiment for you that proves my point: next time you eat a cashew try pulling it apart and you will see that it splits into two halves, the cotyledons of the embryo. There is even a tiny shoot axis with miniscule leaves in between them! 
Cashew nut in half
A whole cashew nut, botanically an embryo, and one split in half, revealing its true nature: a baby plant with two leaves (cotyledons) and a shoot axis

Oh, one more thing....

We botanists use the term ‘nut’ in a very different and much more rigorous sense than ‘ordinary people’ do in their everyday language. For the food industry, chefs and 'regular' consumers who enjoy a tasty nibble, any large edible kernel that requires forceful liberation from a hard shell before consumption is unscrupulously addressed as a ‘nut’. In a botanical sense, a ‘nut’ is only a nut if it consists of nothing but the mature ovary of an indehiscent (= non-opening) fruit with a hard, dry shell, usually harbouring a single seed. This is true for hazelnuts (Corylus avellana, Betulaceae), walnuts (Juglans regia, Juglandaceae), pecan nuts (Carya illinoiensis, Juglandaceae), acorns (Quercus spp., Fagaceae), and unshelled peanuts (Arachis hypogaea, Leguminosae), though peanuts often (and annoyingly to botanists!) contain more than one seed. Other culinary ‘nuts’ are, in fact, the stones of drupes (= stone fruits), such as unshelled almonds (Prunus dulcis var. dulcis, Rosaceae), pistachios (Pistacia vera, Anacardiaceae), and, in all honesty, also cashew nuts (Anacardium occidentale, Anacardiaceae). I didn’t want to make things too complicated but, working for Kew, I finally have to break the truth about the cashew nut. Although hardly recognizable as such, the shell of a cashew nut does indeed display the three defining layers of a drupe: an outer skin, a very thin, quick-drying but nevertheless soft middle layer, followed by the dominating hard, woody stone.
As a final blow to the culinary nut-concept, it has to be unveiled that unshelled Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa, Lecythidaceae), macadamias (Macadamia integrifolia and M. tetraphylla, Proteaceae), ginkgo nuts (Ginkgo biloba, Ginkgoaceae) and pine nuts (Pinus pinea, Pinaceae) are purely seeds in a botanical sense because their shell consists of the seed coat.
- Wolfgang -
All photos by Wolfgang Stuppy
*Restinga: a distinct type of tropical and subtropical forest found on acidic, nutrient-poor soils at the the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Related links

I think you can appreciate what a brilliant insight this is into something we might buy from supermarket shelves entirely without thought for what is behind this item.

Thank you indeed to Wolfgang Stuppy for this wonderful post.

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