Wednesday Weed – Brazil Nuts

Photo One by Taken by Deathworm at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3580398

Brazil nuts (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I was growing up, a bowl of mixed nuts in their shells was a sure sign that Christmas was coming. There was a kind of hierarchy of difficulty when it came to using our manual nutcrackers. Hazelnuts were easy. Almonds were a bit trickier. Walnuts were pretty much spherical, and so they needed careful handling. But when it came to Brazil nuts we always handed the nutcrackers over to Dad so that he could apply the necessary pressure. Then, the white nut with its creamy flavour was separated from the papery dark brown inner skin and, if you were my grandmother, it was dipped into a puddle of table salt. She nibbled away at the nut with such obvious delight that it was clear that this was an exotic treat, not something to be taken for granted.

And if I’d known what went into the ‘making’ of a brazil nut, maybe I would have appreciated them more too.

Brazil nut trees grow in the forests of the Amazon, and the vast majority of the harvest comes from (unsurprisingly) Brazil, with Bolivia and Peru also major exporters. For some reason they are also grown in Cote d’Ivoire in Africa. However, this is one of the few major crops in the world that can only be wild harvested, and the reasons are complex.

Firstly, the Brazil nut flower can only be pollinated by a bee with enough heft to wriggle into the impressive flower. The female orchid bees meet the criteria, and so are essential to the continuation of the plant.

Photo Two by By M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas - M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas (2012) "Pollination Requirements and the Foraging Behavior of Potential Pollinators of Cultivated Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl.) Trees in Central Amazon Rainforest" Psyche vol. 2012 doi:10.1155/2012/978019 Figure 2, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22391398

The orchid bee Eulaema meriana on a Brazil nut flower (Photo Two)

However, what about the continuation of the orchid bee? The male of this species is much smaller than the female, and pollinates the orchid Coryanthes vasquezii – like all bees, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, but because the orchid has something to offer. Unusually, what the orchid offers is not nectar, but a scent – the smell of the flower is a strong attractant for the female bee, and so the male ‘splashes it on all over’ in much the same way that adolescent males of my generation used to bathe themselves in Brut aftershave.

Photo by Edrei Quek at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154959741085289&set=gm.1874856789457566&type=3&theater

Coryanthes vasquezii orchid (Photo Three)

Fortunately for the rainforest, the orchid is an epiphyte which grows only in the upper canopy of emergent trees. So, what this means is that the Brazil nut tree can’t be grown in a monoculture plantation like a peanut, but must be part of a diverse rainforest environment to survive.

Photo Four By Lior Golgher - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3231673

A Brazil nut fruit (Photo Four)

Once the flower is pollinated, it takes up to 14 months for the fruit to mature. And what a whopper it is! A Brazil nut ‘fruit’ can weigh up to 2 kgs, and as they sometimes grow in parks and gardens, there is a risk of passers-by being brained. However, once safely on the ground, the fruit can be gnawed open by agouti, delicate forest rodents who tiptoe through the undergrowth. Like squirrels, the agouti bury what they can’t eat, but don’t always return to harvest the fruit, so this is one way that new Brazil nut trees emerge.

Photo Five by By brian.gratwicke - Agouti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20397416

An agouti (Photo Five)

And I’m sure we’ve all seen those wildlife films featuring capuchin monkeys cracking open nuts by using a stone as a hammer, but if you haven’t, have a look here.

Brazil nuts, like all seeds, come with a hefty amount of fat and protein, which is intended to power the new tree when it germinates. Brazil nuts are also amongst the richest natural foods in selenium, which is an essential micronutrient. It seems that exposure to mercury or Vitamin E deficiency are the two commonest reasons for people suffering a deficiency, but grazing animals may need supplements if the soil is deficient. Although many people (like my grandmother) enjoy munching on an occasional Brazil nut, they are expensive enough not to be a regular ingredient in nut roasts and such. However, in Brazil itself, Brazil nuts are made into a cake Bolo de castanha-do-pará, and brownies and other sweetmeats may substitute Brazil nut flour for the normal wheat flour. The recipes I’ve found are mostly in Portuguese, as you might expect, but here is a link to one in English which looks pretty authentic, should you happen to have some Brazil nuts just laying about doing nothing.

Photo Six from https://receitas.globo.com/bolo-de-castanha-do-para-541ba02e4d38850a15000093.ghtml

Brazil nut cake (Photo Six)

The Brazil Nut tree itself is an extraordinary rainforest giant, reaching up to 40 metres high and living for up to a thousand years. It is forbidden to cut down a Brazil nut tree (known as a Castanheira) in Brazil without express permission, but I think it unlikely that this doesn’t happen. Let’s hope that the price of Brazil nuts stays high enough for a mature tree to retain its economic value, in a country with so much poverty. 

Photo Seven by By Nando cunha - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15650550

Brazil nut tree (Photo Seven)

And finally, in the absence of a poem, I would like to present to you this quote from Noël Coward, that delightful misanthrope. I have to say that I’ve found rather more brazil nuts than vanilla creams in my life. I will maintain to my last breath that there are more good people in the world than bad, and even if it’s not true it certainly makes the world a more hopeful place to live in.

It is my considered opinion that the human race (soi disant) is cruel, idiotic, sentimental, predatory, ungrateful, ugly, conceited and egocentric to the last ditch and that the occasional discovery of an isolated exception is as deliciously surprising as finding a sudden brazil nut in what you know to be five pounds of vanilla creams. These glorious moments, although not making life actually worth living, perhaps, at least make it pleasanter.”
― Noël Coward

Photo Credits

Photo One by Taken by Deathworm at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3580398

Photo Two By M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas – M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas (2012) “Pollination Requirements and the Foraging Behavior of Potential Pollinators of Cultivated Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl.) Trees in Central Amazon Rainforest” Psyche vol. 2012 doi:10.1155/2012/978019 Figure 2, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22391398

Photo Three by Edrei Quek at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154959741085289&set=gm.1874856789457566&type=3&theater

Photo Four By Lior Golgher – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3231673

Photo Five By brian.gratwicke – Agouti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20397416

Photo Six from https://receitas.globo.com/bolo-de-castanha-do-para-541ba02e4d38850a15000093.ghtml

Photo Seven by By Nando cunha – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15650550

10 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Brazil Nuts

  1. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    A very interesting post. I love all nuts, Bobby’s not so keen. Brazils are one of my favourites, although i confess to love them covered in chocolate as well. The Brazil nut cake looked very tempting.

    Reply
  2. vuurklip

    Just a limerick:

    There once was a nut from Brazil
    Who said to a peanut: I Will
    But the match was unhappy
    Their sex life was crappy
    This proves that mixed nuts don’t thrill!

    Reply
  3. Anne

    I recall – thanks to you – the arrival of mixed bags of nuts still in their shells at around Christmas time. It was a treat my father would not do without! While I enjoy nuts in general, Brazil nuts are a special favourite – seldom purchased because of the price. Nonetheless, I remember a campaign some time ago urging people to buy Brazil nuts as a means of saving the South American forests. The reason underlying this, you have explained well: if the nuts are seen to have considerable commercial value the trees bearing them would less likely be cut down 🙂

    Reply
  4. Claire

    Hello! This post was so interesting!The limerick is great!
    I have discovered Brazil nuts as a child in mixed nuts, too. I remember there wasn’t a lot of them in the mix…
    Ivory Coast exports cocoa, coffee, pineapples, coconuts, bananas and cashew nuts, so why not Brazil nuts. The tree does not grow there naturally, so I would like to know how they deal with the pollination: orchid bee? Orchid? ( probably not like vanilla, that would be awkward)How long does it take for a tree to produce nuts? Could not find any information about this.
    The Brazil nut tree is considered a vulnerable species in Brazil because of deforestation, and Ivory Coast has lost over 80% of its forests( because of cocoa plantations), so if you eat Brazil nuts to save the rainforest, it might be wiser to eat them with salt, not chocolate…

    Reply

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