The oil nut’s curious little green fruits

For me, the fall season is one of the most invigorating times to get out in the woods and prowl around. Many of the most beautiful wildflowers found in the Blue Ridge, especially the lobelias and gentians, are then coming into their own.

And most of the others are in their fruiting stages. The transition from flower to fruit (or seed) is both logical and enjoyable. The varied fruiting forms — which run the gamut from drupes, berries, and pomes to follicles, utricles, loments, and legumes to capsules, achenes, samaras, and nuts — are as attractive and intricate in their own way as any wildflower. And they are, after all, the grand finales of the germination-flowering-pollination cycle.

Some plants are more conspicuous in their flowering form while others stand out when they produce fruit. The latter would include doll’s-eyes, hearts-a-bustin’ or strawberry bush, virgin’s bower, sumac, carrion vine, pokeberry, sassafras, chinquapin, foxtail, wild oats, bittersweet, winterberry, American holly, mountain ash, ginseng, nightshade, wild yam, and many others. A peculiar instance is oil nut (Pyrularia pubera), a fairly large shrub in the Sandalwood Family (Santalaceae) also known as buffalo nut, elk nut, and rabbit wood. During every fall season, I have several people contact me to ask, “What is the name of that plant with the curious little green fruits that resemble pears?” Answer: oil nut, also known as buffalo nut, elk nut, and tallow nut.

In floodplains and upland woods, oil nut thrives in the mountains from southern Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama. It bears inconspicuous small greenish flowers from late April through May. The leaves are prominently veined, alternate, deciduous, and lance-shaped, often being long-pointed at their tips. When it’s not in fruit, I recognize the plant by the distinctive apple-green color of these leaves. It’s the only species of the genus Pyrularia found in the western hemisphere — the other three being natives of southeastern Asia.

In late summer and fall, oil nut displays a pear-shaped fruit that’s an eye-catcher. It contains a single round brownish nut about the size of a marble. The green exterior husk is mealy and oily, while the interior of the nut consists of meat about the color and consistency of that found inside an acorn.

The common names oil nut and tallow nut suggest that the fruit might provide a substance that would burn. And this is supported by S.B. Buckley, a botanist who roamed the Blue Ridge during the 19th century, who wrote that the fruit is “so oily that it will burn like a candle if a wick be drawn through it.”

In John Lyon, Nurseryman and Plant Hunter, and His Journal, 1799-1814 (1963), botanical historians Joesph and Nesta Ewan made some interesting observations about the botanical interest in oil nut during the nineteenth century:

William Hamilton, for whom Muhlenberg named the oil-nut Hamiltonia oleifera, and B.S. Barton were interested in the product, and perhaps Lyon may have hoped to find a large enough quantity to merchandise the nuts, which sometimes attain the size of a ‘musket ball.’ F.A. Michaux sought and found Pyrularia a short distance from West Liberty Town, near the plantation of Mr. Patrick Archibald in western Pennsylvania in July, 1802 . . . Michaux describes how his father (Andre Michaux) had discovered the shrub fifteen years previously in the mountains of South Carolina, but had been unsuccessful in growing it in cultivation.

In Cherokee Plants: Their Uses – A 400 Year History (1975), Paul B. Hamel and Mary C. Chiltoskey recorded that the early Cherokees —who called the plant “colic ball” in reference to the inner nut — was chewed so as “to make vomit for colic” They also prepared a salve from the fruit that was reputed to cure “old sores.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Editor’s Note – An expanded version this essay will appear in George Ellison’s A Blue Ridge Nature Journal: Reflections on the Appalachians in Essays and Art, which will be published this month by The Natural History Press, Charleston, SC. It will include 30 of his essays on the natural areas, flora and fauna of the southern mountains, as well as 40 full-color watercolors and 30 line drawings by his wife, Elizabeth Ellison.)

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