The Weekend Variety: Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

black walnut tree

This week’s Weekend Variety post is on the stately Juglans nigra, otherwise known as the black walnut.  Not a finicky tree, black walnuts grow well wherever they plant themselves.  In the late summer to early fall, the walnuts bear and then drop their round green fruits.  The husk of the fruit covers a black sponge beneath it and then beneath that a hard, almost unbreakable shell that holds a tasty nut.  Squirrels around us love these nuts and many days, they get to them before I can get my hands on some.  But thankfully, walnuts bear their green balls prolifically, and so, if I wait just another day and beat the squirrels,  I can usually gather enough for our needs.

Identification

Black walnuts are easily identifiable in any time of the year.  The tree usually sports a straight trunk when grown among other trees. This is one of the reasons it is prized for its wood.  Its bark is grey and is broken into sections like this:

black walnut barkIts leaves are what is known as pinnately compound, that is a leaf composed of multiple leaflets that stretch out opposite each other.  Here’s a picture of the leaves.

black walnut leavesAs already stated, the walnuts fruit is green and round and contains a shell which contains a nut.  Here’s a picture of the husk and the shell and the nut.

walnut husk

walnut shell

Culture and Use

Black walnuts are native to the North Eastern United States.  Native Americans Tribes would store these nuts for the winter or use them in sauces, relishes, desserts, and soups.  In the early 18th century, the English started pickling their immature native walnut fruits and the pickling of the North American black walnut soon followed after.  Pickling of immature walnuts apparently has continued up to the present time.

The nut of Juglans nigra is fairly hard to get.  It involves first removing the green husk.  In years past, we’ve run the fruit over with our car to remove the husk from the shell.  While this method works well, it does a make a mess of the driveway.  When the husk is broken, it emits a black juice that gets all over.    This year, we just left the husk to rot in a bag and then removed the decay away from the shell.  This method too is messy, as you can see from the pics.  I noticed the top layer of the walnut fruits had air dried and were much more difficult to get off than the layers beneath that still had some mush to them.  If I do this again, I’ll probably put something over the top layer to prevent them from drying out.

air dried walnut husk

rotten walnut husk

The nuts are almost impossible to get out of the shell with a hand nut-cracker.  Our heavy duty nut cracking machine, shown below, does the job pretty well, though.  I’ve heard that if you cook the shells they tend to open a lot easier, though I’ve never tried it.  Also, some people use a hammer.

nut crackerWord is you can also tap the black walnut, just like you would a maple.  The resulting syrup is supposed to taste like the walnut’s nuts, which makes sense and sounds delicious.  I’d like to try that this year, as we’re planning on tapping some other trees like maple, ironwood, basswood, and maybe even beech.  Look for that post sometime this spring.

Another thing to know about the walnut tree, besides the food value, is that the plant doesn’t play well with others.  The walnut is part of a group of plants that practice allelopathy.  That is, the walnut is a plant that contains a chemical to keep other plants at bay, so that it and its progeny can take root.  This chemical, juglone, pervades all parts of the plant except for the nut, including its roots, leaves, bark and  husks.  Juglone prevents and suppresses the growth of other plants in the surrounding area giving the walnut a growth advantage.

Health

The black walnut nuts are high in omega 3’s and polyphenols.  Traditionally native americans and herbalists used the leaves and the husk of the walnut as an anti-fungal and a expeller of parasites.  Further research has shown that the juglone in the plant is indeed anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral.  Cancer and HIV are some of the diseases where the research of Juglone has shown promise.  However, if it’s true there is no juglone in the nut, you’ll have to be up for trying the pickles or the sap instead.

Black Walnut Diversity

Black walnut is a great addition to any diverse diet, especially if you add in the pickled immature fruits and the syrup.  Like cattails, where you can eat so many different parts of the plant, the black walnut is a bunch of diet variety packed into one big tree.  Eat the nut, eat the fruit, drink the sap.

drawing of a walnut shell
Juglans nigra:  These brain-like shells are wall to wall-nuts.

Have you tried harvesting and cracking the Black Walnut?  Have any recipes to share?  Let us know in the comments below.

If you’re interested in more of our Weekend Variety posts look here or check out our nut section here.

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Resources Used:

http://jem.forrex.org/index.php/jem/article/viewFile/119/473

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. 8th ed., Portland, OR, Timber Press, 2009, pp. 280-81.

 

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