“The Nut Trees of Quebec, Native and Introduced.”

Henri Bernard was a leader of nut tree planting and experimentation in Quebec for many years.  Many of the NNGA members who knew Mr. Bernard from the 1970’s through his death in 1993 remember him with fondness.  He traveled throughout Quebec and Ontario to observe, collect and share nuts and scionwood, and correspond with other nut growers in the US and Canada.  His natural curiosity led him to experiment with grafting nut and fruit trees using his own techniques, and he studied old, forgotten horticulture books.  Come to the NNGA Conference in Quebec this summer to learn more about him and his accomplishments.

Here are excerpts from his article published in the 71rst Edition of the Annual Reports of the Northern Nut Growers Association (1980).

“The Nut Trees of Quebec, Native and Introduced” by Henri Bernard, Saint Jean Baptiste, Quebec, 71rst NNGA Annual Report (1980)

Geography and Climate – The Province of Quebec covers a very vast area, 1.5 million square km, or l2 times the State of New York. Only a small portion of this area is populated to any degree. Five climatic zones ride the 1, 200 miles from the U.S. border to the Arctic. Nut trees can be grown only in the south, from the border to the north for about 350 miles. The warmest section is the area bordering on Ontario, New York, and Vermont. The depression which forms a low plain on each side of the St. Lawrence River constitutes a corridor which carries the air currents from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Another relatively warm area is the Richelieu Valley, going from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River.

Nut Trees in History – Nut trees were present in great numbers when the first Europeans explored the land. In their descriptions of the country they all mentioned the impressive number of nut trees that could be found. They were also impressed by the sizes of these trees and their great potential for construction and shipbuilding. The species were not described with enough details to allow for positive identification. They were probably hickories and butternuts as the explorers traveling along the rivers could only give a description of the flora along the banks of the waterways. These forests which included many kinds of oaks were depleted by England during the Napoleon wars because of its pressing need for wood used in shipbuilding. What was left was cleared to make farmland.

The Native Nut Trees

The Butternut
It is by far the most hardy of all the nut trees. I have seen it in the Saguenay region which is about 400 miles north of the border. It grows along the river basins in association with the maple, the beech and other hardwoods. It also grows occasionally on hillsides. Programs at Laval University to find a good timber type butternut have been very successful. . .

The Hazelnut
This shrub is very hardy. It is found in vast stands between latitude 46 and 49 degrees, particularly in the Gaspe Peninsula.  It is considered a weed by farmers; the roots are hard to eliminate by plowing and harrowing and they keep coming back in fields and along ditches. This species does vary and more should be done to select superior plants among the native hazelnut populations.

Introduced Species

The Black Walnut
This nut tree is not native but it has been around for a long time. Peter Kalm planted seeds from Pennsylvania near Quebec in 1747. Even before that it had been brought from the Great Lakes by explorers, fur traders, and soldiers. The main introductions came around l8l5 with the wave of loyalists who left the U.S. after the war. They spread the black walnut far and wide. Today one can find black walnuts in most villages and towns of southern Quebec. Some of these are so well adapted that natural seedlings can be found in the immediate area, which means that the nuts mature properly; these trees are the product of a natural selection. Joly de Lotbiniere, a rich aristocrat of the time, traveled much and collected many plants. He also planted 20 acres of black walnuts near Quebec in 1880. His domain was, after his death, neglected for many years. The Forestry Department of Laval University has taken charge of what was left of the black walnuts (many hundreds) in the last 25 years…

The Japanese Walnut
I have found many trees of this species, but nobody seems to know where they came from originally. The trees are very hardy and bear heavy crops every year. The nuts, however, are of little value, but the tree has some ornamental potential. It hybridizes very easily with the butternut …

The Filberts
The European filbert does not seem to be able to make it here, although many people have tried to grow the species. I have, however, seen hundreds of them in the Morgan Arboretum, all doing exceptionally well and loaded with nuts. These filberts came from Gellatly. I have seedlings of these filberts and they are growing beautifully. The tree hazel grows without any problem. The 20 trees in the Montreal Botanical Garden were grown from seeds that came from Kiev. I have seen tree hazels planted in many different cities and towns and they are all doing well. I have also noticed a good hardiness in the Jacquemont tree hazel.

The Persian Walnut
Since I have become interested in nut trees seven years ago, I have never been able to find a Persian walnut growing well in Quebec. What is referred to me as a Persian is always some kind of Manchurian walnut of no great value. The Chinese walnut grows quite well, but I have not been able to get one nut to evaluate. I have tried Carpathian walnuts of many different seed sources. Out of fifty seedlings, six years old, only five seem to be hardy enough. With these, I believe, there may be some hope.

The Chestnut
Up to now, I have never found any chestnut tree outside of the Morgan Arboretum and the Montreal Botanical Garden. The chestnut trees at the Morgan Arboretum came from Gellatly around 1957. They were seedlings of his varieties. They seem hardy enough and are producing fine crops every year. I am of the opinion that all are American hybrids. The American chestnut trees in the Montreal Botanical Garden seem to be just on the borderline of their hardiness zone. It may be related to the area which supplied the seed source. I have tried a good number of chestnut seeds from many different sources. Among these I now have a few very hardy trees which had their first crop this year. All the others are not worth keeping, some freeze a little, some freeze back to the ground. The seeds from these better trees will be used to produce other trees and maybe one day create a much hardier strain of chestnut trees.

Other Hickories
The mockernut is surprisingly hardy. It was introduced in Quebec by the loyalists. The nuts are worthless, but it makes a beautiful lawn tree. As for the shellbark, there might be many, but I have only seen them in the Arboretum and the Botanical Garden. They seem very hardy. The pecan is also astonishing by its hardiness. I have seen a few in private properties, also in the National Arboretum in Ottawa. The Montreal Botanical Garden has a collection of six trees, plus a MacCallister hican. These were planted at the opening of the Garden in 1936. I have also tried six hundred pecan seeds from Indiana and a good percentage are doing well, although I am not expecting them to fill their nuts. I believe, however, that if we promote the interest in it, and have it widely planted something good might be selected. In the meantime, it makes a nice ornamental.

The Korean Pine and Other Nut Pines
This is about the hardiest pine. It will grow in northern areas where the white pine will not grow. It has potential for wood, wildlife feeding, natural resins, and nuts for humans. I have been lucky in finding many trees. I say lucky because it is so difficult to differentiate it from the white pine, even from a short distance. I have found some that were planted by individuals, some others have been planted as forestry experiments. The most interesting tree of this species in Quebec is the one growing in Abbotsford. The seed was brought back from Russia by Charles Gibb who went there in 1882, with Professor Budd of Iowa, for the purpose of finding hardy apple trees for the north. He also brought back many other species.

I have been unable to locate any other nut pines in this cold climate, except Pinus Armandii, a nut pine from western China which seems hardy. Other nut pines are probably hardy.

Other Nut Trees
Although Quebec has many millions of beech trees, the nuts are too small and of little if any value. Until we can find a spontaneous mutation or sport, this species will remain a very marginal nut tree. The Gingko is also a very hardy tree. Trees planted in Montreal in 1905, on a property that has since become a park, bear a good crop almost every year. The fruit are eagerly gathered by people from the local Chinese community. They told me that if I would take off the pulp and roast the kernels I would have a very delicious nut.

Conclusion

Quebec, with its harsh winter climate, does not seem to be the place to grow nut trees. There will probably never be any significant production. However, from what I have observed and experimented with since I became interested in nut trees, I believe that there are enough species that can be grown to make it interesting for someone willing to grow them for his own pleasure. Here we have to make selection on hardiness first. Cultivars of value will only come later. The next forty years may bring increasing selections if we can increase the number of nut trees through increased public interest and if we can make it so that people in horticulture and forestry will stop telling the public that nut trees are for warmer climates further south.

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