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Published: January 3, 2013
Brazil Nuts, A Tasty Treat
State Fruit Extension Specialist
Which are your favorites in that can of mixed nuts? Could it be the peanuts, almonds, cashews, filberts, or the biggest ones, the Brazil nuts? While not one of the major nuts grown in the United States, it is a fascinating plant with unusual fruits.
Bertholletia excela, also known as the Brazil nut, almendras, castaheiro-do- Pará, castaña-de-Brazil, juvia, saucaia, and creamnut, is a large tree found in Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru along the banks of the Amazon, Rio Negro and other rivers. These majestic trees reach up to 160 feet tall and may live for over 800 years. They are usually found in natural stands of about 50 to 100 trees, but can be grown in orchards. Nut production begins when trees are 10 to 30 years old. Trees bloom during late September to February with flowers opening daily between 4:30 to 5:00 a.m. in Brazil and fall later the same day. Creamy white flowers are hooded and require only certain types of bees for effective pollination. Following pollination, a large woody fruit or capsule develops over a period of 14 months (Figure 1). Each mature tree can produce as many as 300 fruits annually, with each one weighing up to 5 pounds. Ten to 25 triangular nuts develop inside each fruit, like segments of an orange. Fruits naturally drop from trees and are harvested from January to June. Because nuts are usually harvested from the ground during the rainy season, inadequate drying procedures can result in the presence of aflatoxins on shells. However, with proper post-harvest handling, aflatoxins are avoided.
Brazil nuts are a nutritious source of protein, carbohydrates, fat and some vitamins. Because selenium intake was associated with a reduced risk of some types of cancer in a clinical trial, Brazil nuts are sometimes promoted in advertisements as a healthy food to prevent breast and prostate cancer. Brazil nut oil is also an important commodity. It is used in foods and as a cosmetic ingredient in many popular brands of soap, shampoo, hair care products, lotions, deodorants, mouthwash, shaving lotions, and sunscreens.
Throughout history indigenous people of the Brazilian rainforest consumed the nuts raw or mixed them with other plants into gruel or mush. Empty fruits or “monkey pods” were used as drinking cups, to collect rubber latex from trees, or to carry around small fires to ward off black flies. Tea was brewed from fruits or bark for medicinal purposes, and oil was used for cooking, soap, and livestock feed.
While Bertholletia excela is an interesting native tree of South America with multipurpose nuts, they also just taste good!
Figure 1. Bertholletia excela leaf, fruit capsule, and nuts. Source: Scientific American Supplement, No. 598, June 18, 1887.