There is an old saying that goes, “The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago.” This holds especially true for trees that someday may save your life in the event of a crisis or disaster.
The next best time to plant a tree, of course, is right now.
But, what should you plant?
Below is a list of trees that are especially important for food and other survival uses, based on the amount of calories they can supply, how well they store, and how long they take to produce.
1. Hazelnut (Corylus species)
Uses: Nuts are one of the most nutrient-dense, long-term storage crops you can grow, and hazelnuts top the list of best nuts to plant. This is because of their exceptional nutritional value as well as their ability to produce quickly, within 4-5 years. Keep the nut shell on and store in a cool, dry place, and it should store for at least 12 months. An edible oil can be extracted from the seed.
Propagation: The seeds should be planted fresh during autumn in a cold frame if possible, or stratified (kept moist, but not soggy in soil or soilless mix) over the winter. Stored seed can be pre-soaked in warm water for 48 hours and then given 2 weeks of warm moist treatment, followed by 3-4 months of cold moist treatment (i.e. warm stratification, followed by cold stratification). It should then germinate in 1-6 months. As with all trees, particularly when first planted, mulch aggressively, and consider putting a weed barrier around them (e.g. cardboard) as they establish, and then mulch with 4-6 inches of mulch to or beyond their drip line (recommended for all trees). All trees benefit from mycorrhizal inoculant, as well.
2. Walnut (Juglans species)
Uses: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and California walnut (Juglans californica) are both good choices, as is the English walnut (Juglans regia). The nuts are high in calories and nutrients, with a sweet, rich flavor. They can be stored like other nuts (dried, kept cool and dark) and will keep for up to 6 months, though roasting extends storage times.
A brown dye can be extracted from the husks, bark, leaves and stems, and the husks also can be made into a high-quality coal once removed from the nut (burn at low oxygen), which can be used to create a water filter. All parts of the tree contain juglone, which can be used as an insecticide and herbicide (use only in an emergency, as it will kill soil life and could affect health of soil, while making the soil unsuitable for most plants). Sap also can be tapped and used in moderation for hydration, or boiled into a syrup.
Propagation: There are cultivars of walnut that are much better for eating (larger nuts, thinner shells), so if possible, obtain these trees, or seeds, from nurseries. Growing wild walnuts from seed is certainly not a bad idea, however. You can get nuts from a tree from seed in as little as 10 years, although they take some time to produce in quantity. You also can graft cultivars onto root stock that you grow from seed. To grow from seed, either plant the seeds in their permanent location in the fall after removing them from the husk, and protect them from rodents by putting chicken wire over the planting area, or stratify them in a bucket of soil or soilless mix outdoors over the winter (if planting a winter hardy species of walnut in a cold climate), followed by planting in the spring, potentially even individually as you check for sprouting nuts. They require deep, well-drained soil as they have a tap root, and should be planted into their permanent position immediately, or within a year if you can keep them in a deep pot (4 inch PVC pipes 2 inches long with mesh holding the soil in will work, and will prevent roots from tangling).
3. Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
Uses: Much the same as walnut, particularly the edible nut. Hickory nuts store better than walnuts, however, keep for up to 2 years. The seed also can be ground into a meal and used as a thickener, while it is also sweet and delicious on its own.
Propagation: The same as walnuts, but they cannot be stored as long and should be sown as soon as possible. Store seeds in moist soil or soilless mix until planting. Like walnuts, look for improved eating cultivars.
4. Mulberry (Morus species)
Uses: Mulberry has a sweet and delicious edible berry that is usually produced in abundance, and can be eaten fresh (although it doesn’t keep well), made into preserves, or dried. Unfurling leaves and young shoots are also edible (raw or cooked) in most if not all species, including Morus alba and Morus rubra. Young leaves are better. Mulberry is also an excellent fodder crop for livestock (this is, the leaves and berries), and you can get decent fiber from the bark and young stems, which is traditionally used for cloth and paper making.
Propagation: A fast-growing tree, it is best grown from seed. (Seed-grown plants are much more vigorous than those from cuttings.) Seed requires 2-3 months of cold stratification. Red mulberry (Morus rubra) is said to be among the best species for eating, although it is endangered and can be difficult to find. Seeds can be sprouted in their stratification container and then pricked out into individual pots, or planted densely in pots before sprouting, and then thinned or transplanted as soon as they germinate. Trees develop a tap root, so are best planted into their permanent position within 1 year, and should be kept in deep pots until then.
5. Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Uses: Seeds are edible raw or cooked, with a taste similar to peas, and they are high in carbs and protein. Seed pulp is sweet and can be eaten or used as a sugar substitute. Pods also are great livestock fodder, and the tender young seedpods are edible cooked. The tree fixes nitrogen so is a good companion plant for many other plants, and can be used to make a “living fence” by planting them densely in rows and then keeping them trimmed. Wood is very rot-resistant and can be useful for making tools or fence posts (although living fences are much smarter since they never rot).
Propagation: Seeds can be “scarified” by soaking in water that is boiled and then letting them sit in the water for 5 minutes. Soak for 24 hours. This will break down the tough seed coating, and the seed should then “imbibe,” meaning it will engorge with water. Seeds that do not engorge should be re-soaked in hot water until they do. Viable seed has a high germination rate, and the tree will then grow quickly. To get thornless honey locust, find a larger tree and cut a thornless grafting scion from the top (the tops of trees often do not grow thorns) to graft onto planted root stock.
These are, of course, only a few of the excellent choices for trees to grow for survival insurance. Others include honeyberry (a.k.a. haskap, a fast-growing berry shrub), elderberry, white/paper birch (fast growing, excellent sap for hydration), yellow horn, chestnut, and many others. Given that nothing in life is certain, it’s best to prepare ourselves by planting our own low-maintenance food trees around our homes. Your future self may thank you.
What trees would you add to our list? Share your tips in the section below: