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California declared four nuts the official state nut. Technically they’re all seeds

Almonds
Freshly harvested almonds.
(David Karp)

The almond, pecan, walnut and pistachio were each officially declared California’s state nut when Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed the declaration into law.

Botanically speaking, the nuts are technically seeds of drupe fruits, unlike the acorn — a true nut — which did not make the list. Even though they aren’t scientifically nuts, the almond, walnut, pecan and pistachio still all are considered nuts in normal conversation and from a culinary perspective.

But semantics are only one part of this nutty development.

The bigger puzzler here is: Why would four different nuts each be deemed the official state nut? Let’s go back to the beginning of this story.

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A walnut, in (and out of) a nutshell.
A walnut, in (and out of) a nutshell.
(David Karp)

It started in a fourth-grade classroom at Margaret Sheehy Elementary School in Merced. The kids in Marc Medefind’s class were surprised to learn that the Golden State didn’t have its own official nut. (Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom once proclaimed the almond as such, along with the avocado as state fruit and artichoke as state vegetable, but that never became law.)

The students wrote letters to Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) and nominated the almond, which is a $4-billion industry for the state.

“We discovered that we were underrepresented because we don’t have an official state nut,” Medefind told the Merced County Times. “Other states such as Arkansas, Texas and Missouri have state nuts but not California.”

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(That would be the pecan for Arkansas and Texas, and the tree nut for Missouri.)

Gray took up the cause and in May, the class of 25 fourth-graders paraded to Sacramento’s Capitol and made their case.

Pistachios, ready for the taking.
Pistachios, ready for the taking.
(David Karp)

They weren’t alone.

The mascots of minor league baseball’s Modesto Nuts — Wally the Walnut, Al the Almond, Shelly the Pistachio — were there too. And so were lobbyists for California’s walnut, pistachio and pecan growers, who argued that their respective nuts were just as valuable as the almond.

Pecans in their natural habitat.
Pecans in their natural habitat.
(Jenn Harris)

The bill was amended to include the other three nuts and, in addition to information about almonds, detailed the following facts:

  • California walnuts make up 99% of the commercial U.S. supply and roughly three-quarters of the world’s inventory.
  • California pistachios account for 98% of the nation’s supply.
  • Pecans are the only nut native to the U.S. and were first planted in California in the 1970s.

Lawmakers appeared to be unanimously convinced and sent the decree to the governor, joining the official state animal (the grizzly bear), mineral (gold) and even fabric (denim).

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The law was signed just three months after Brown declared California’s drought was finally over — after more than five years. Throughout that time, concerns were raised over agricultural production in the Central Valley, the source for 25% of the nation’s table food. As farmers faced an allocated water supply, many were forced to turn to groundwater — water that’s stored beneath Earth’s surface — which found itself in the headlines as reservoir supplies were allocated.

Also in the headlines during that time? Almonds. The nut became a scapegoat for the drought after Mother Jones reported that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow an almond.

That number isn’t necessarily outrageous when compared to other fruits and vegetables, as argued by almond farmers and stated in that very article. But outrage followed nonetheless as people used the statistic to vilify almonds, and other nuts, during the drought.

Pecans, walnuts, pistachios and almonds won’t gain any extra protection with the title of “official state nut,” and the law doesn’t mention the drought in its text. But one could view the piece of legislation as proof that, after some debate, California’s still nuts for its nuts.

colleen.shalby@latimes.com

Twitter: @cshalby

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