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Sonorans harvest bounty of acorns before monsoon

By Jonathon Shacat
SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (AP)— Each year, before the monsoon rains come, people in this region of northern Mexico harvest acorns known as bellotas from Emory Oak trees and sell the nuts along the roads here.Bellotas are brown and measure about 3/4 of an inch long and about 1/4 of an inch wide. Wick Communications environmental liaison Dick Kamp describes the taste as “tannic acid, and kind of rich.”

Sierra Vista Herald, Jonathon Shacat, Associated Press – Rodolfo Santos, holds some bellotas on June 28, 2011 in Naco, Sonora, Mexico. Each year, before the monsoon rains come, people in this region of northern Mexico harvest acorns known as bellotas from Emory Oak trees and sell the nuts along the roads here.

Emory Oak trees grow in isolated portions of Arizona, southwest New Mexico, west Texas, Sonora and Chihuahua, says David Sibley in his “Guide to Trees.” They occur at elevations of 5,000 to 10,000 feet, according to the book “Western Forest Trees.”

“It is one of the most interesting wild harvests left in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and it probably goes back 8,000 years,” said Gary Paul Nabhan, food historian and local foods scientist at the University of Arizona’s southwest center.

Significant harvests are conducted in Cuitaca, which is located about 15 miles west of Cananea. Bellotas are sold by people like Omar Melendez, his wife, Rafaela Romo, and their niece and nephew, Jakelina Quiroz and Christian Romo.

The bellotas they were selling on Tuesday on the roadside in Cuitaca had been collected from Cananea on Monday. They have been unable to harvest trees in Cuitaca so far because the bellotas there are still green, said Melendez.

Bellotas are sold in clear plastic baggies. An amount that would fit in one liter is priced at 75 pesos, or about $6.50. A small baggie, containing about 300 nuts, costs 25 pesos, or a little more than $2, he added.

“There are fewer bellotas this year due to a lack of water because it has not rained,” said Melendez.

Nabhan explained the low amount of winter precipitation is probably stressing the trees, but they don’t produce reliably every year. They have what is called a mast crop, which means one of seven years is a big harvest.

“Some of it is rainfall related, but some of it is how much time it takes for the plants to store up a good amount of energy,” he said.

Emory Oaks are programmed to drop bellotas on the ground just before the monsoon rains so they have a high probability of germination and survival during the wettest time of summer. The nuts must be harvested before the summer rains.

“With thunderstorms, a lot of them get knocked down. Whether you gather them off the ground or you pick them off trees, a high number of them have a little larvae in them. If you buy the ones from last year or any significant period of time after the harvest, they get infested by this worm-like larvae,” Nabhan said.

“The interesting thing is the Sonorans know this, and they are particularly rabid about getting that first batch that comes in to the little roadside stands because it has a lower probability of worms. Sometimes you can freeze them for a day or two and the worms die. The worms lay their eggs in there pretty quickly, and then rapidly begin to eat them as the rainy season begins,” he continued.

There are oaks everywhere in North America, but the Emory Oak is the one with the least bitterness, and one of the few or the only one that can be eaten without leaching in all of North America. Also, Emory Oak acorns are one of the best foods for controlling diabetes, according to Nabhan.

The poorest of the poor in Sonora do a series of wild harvests commercially for the brokers who bring them across the border, he said. They often pick the acorns in June and July, then they switch their efforts to harvesting green chiltepin peppers in August, and then the red chiltepins in September and early October.

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Information from: Sierra Vista Herald, http://www.svherald.com

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