Irish Nut Growers Association

promoting nut growing in Ireland




Home History Trials Species and Varieties Sources of Trees Nut Cultivation Info Workshops Contact


Historical Background

The use of nuts for food pre-dates agriculture by tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of years. While, it is not known when or exactly where the first cultivation of nut trees began, the likelihood is that it occured somewhere in Central or Western Asia 6000-7000 years ago.

By the time of Ancient Greece, both the chestnut and walnut were being cultivated in many parts of Southern Europe. It is likely that the almond arrived soon afterwards. During Roman times cultivation of almonds, chestnuts and walnuts spread right across Europe, probably as far north as Southern Britain.

The hazelnut, being native to every European country with the possible exception of Iceland, was already a familiar food to many inhabitants of Europe, including those living in Ireland. In Northern and Western Europe, cultivation of the hazelnut probably began during the Early Middle Ages. By 1600 AD, cultivated forms of the hazelnut were being produced by specialist nurseries in England, where it was usually called the cobnut (from cob meaning 'round'). Cultivation of the hazelnut/cobnut was also taking place in many other European countries.

There is no known history of the hazelnut being cultivated on a large scale in Ireland. However, a few varieties imported from England and France were planted in the gardens of the big houses during the colonial era. Wild nuts continued to be collected for food by local people until the late Nineteenth Century.

The chesntut and walnut probably arrived in Ireland during the Late Middle Ages. The first specific mention of walnuts is on the estate of Walter Raleigh, in Waterford, around the end of the Sixteenth Century.

Both walnuts and chestnuts were planted on the big estates, more for their highly prized timber than for nuts, or simply as a symbol of status. Across the Irish Sea, walnuts were grown for nuts are far north as Yorkshire, with individual nut-bearing trees recorded as far noth as Inverness, in Northern Scotland. The chestnut is recorded as bearing nuts as far north as Edinburgh. The oldest chestnut tree in the UK is the Tortworth Chestnut, which is estimated to be 1000-1200 years old.

Within Ireland, grand old trees of both walnuts and chestnuts may occasionally be found on the land of former Colonial-era estates, or within the grounds of religious orders. Although these trees were almost certainly grown from seed (in other words, not varieties developed specifically for nut production), many of them bear nuts in good years.

The reasons that nuts have not previously been produced on any significant scale in Ireland are many: the low level of land ownship amongst the agricultural population; the absence of an orchard tradition, combined with limited opportunities to learn orchard skills and the absense of research institutions certainly were factors. The climate too has played a part: without doubt the high level of rainfall in some parts of the country makes nut crops unfeasable. And in many places the soil is too wet, too acid or too shallow.

However the perception that nut crops cannot succeed in Ireland is false. The right varieties, grown in fertile soil in appropriate locations, and properly tended, can be expected to produce good crops most years.


The Future

For a glimpse of where Ireland could be in fifty years time, take a short mental journey to the Netherlands, to Northern Germany, to Denmark and to Western Norway. Here we find climates remarkably similar to the eastern parts of Ireland, some slightly more benign, others decidely tougher, but in all of these places we find orchards of plums, pears and cherries: fruits that are regarded as being too difficult to grow in Ireland. The difference? Long traditions of growing these crops, local knowledge, careful use of micro-climates, and (often) good levels of support from the state.

And in all of these places except Norway, we can find people working with nut trees. Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have all developed their own particular varieties of cobnut. Germany has many local varieties of walnut. In the Netherlands there are small-scale growers developing new walnut varieties: hardier; later flowering, faster to mature or more disease resistant - all attributes which lead to improved ability to crop.

Growers in Denmark are trialling varieties of heartnut. One variety, Kalmar, comes from an old tree found growing in Eastern Sweden.

One factor which is in the favour of the nut grower in northern latitudes is global warming. A rise in average temperature of 1 degree celsius is like moving 150-200 km closer to the equator. So not only are new nut varieties being bred to be suited to northern latitudes, our local climatic conditions are becoming more favourable to the varieties we already have. And given that even the shortest-lived of the nut trees will live for 70-100 years, the expected 3-6 degree Celsius rise by the year 2100 is of major significance. The downsides of climate change? In the maritime periphery of Northwest Europe, it most likely will become wetter too, so these coastal areas may become less suitable for nut growing.

The other thing about global warming is that it will have a catastrophic effect on food production in some of the world's most important food growing areas including India, Pakistan, China, the US and Egypt. Crop yields in some of these areas may fall by as much as 70 percent. By 2050, the world is likely to face chronic food shortages. The situation will be exacerbated by the decline in global production of crude oil and will have major impacts on the globalised food market. What it will also mean however, is that locally produced food will become economically viable: it may be the only food available.

Nut crops have some important advantages over both livestock farming and conventional tillage crops. They can deliver far greater food outputs per unit area, in terms of calories, protein and oils, than any livestock product, and they can be produced with far lower energy inputs than any tillage crop. From a food security perspective, nut crops have an important role to play.