Friday, October 9, 2009

Black Walnut

New IDs can be such fun! Black Walnut, Juglans nigra, was such a total surprise. I came home with photos of leaves and a couple of fruit in a pocket. I had not the slightest clue that walnuts come inside these big balls of hard and roughened green fruit until I hit the books.

Once I knew what I had, I trimmed away some of the fruit to get down to the nut and then went all the way to split a nut. Peeling down to the nut stained my hands--it looked like I'd spilled walnut colored oil-based wood stain! :-) Isn't the inside of the nut so beautiful? That creamy white was another surprise. Smelly too.

The Black Walnut Tree
by Mary Oliver

My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood-an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don't do
anything. That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
What my mother and I both know
is that we'd crawl with shame
in the emptiness we'd made
in our own and our fathers' backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, whip
crack of the mortgage.

From Wikipedia:

The extraction of the kernel from the fruit of the black walnut is difficult. The shell is covered by a thick husk that exudes a dark, staining, strong-smelling juice. The juice will often be a yellow-brown at first, and then rapidly assumes a deep black-green color upon exposure to the air. The shell often protrudes into the meat so that whole kernels often cannot be obtained.

The husk is best removed when green as the nuts taste better if it is removed then. Rolling the nut underfoot on a hard surface such as a driveway is a common method; commercial huskers use a car tire rotating against a metal mesh. Some take a thick plywood board and drill a nut sized hole in it (from one to two inches in diameter) and smash the nut through using a hammer. The nut goes through and the husk remains behind. To keep the husk juices from splattering, a board or canvas scrap may be used to cover the nut before hammering. The black walnut’s husks are known to leave durable, hard to remove stains on hands and clothing.

Before eating or storage, the nuts should be cured in a dry place for at least two weeks. Before cracking, the unshelled nuts may be soaked in hot water for 24 hours in order to soften the shells, but with a proper cracker this is not necessary. While the flavor is prized, the difficulty in preparing the black walnut may account for the wider popularity and availability of the Persian walnut.

"Juglans nigra." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Oct 2009, 23:52 UTC. 9 Oct 2009 <>.


  1. The Black Walnut is one of my "prize" IDs as well. I found one deep in our woods near an old cellar hole about 4 years ago. I did the EXACT same thing you did- I saw the unusual tree, took photos, came home with my pockets full of the green golf balls and went to work with my field guides. I was SO excited to learn what it was. I went back several times to measure the tree trunk and take more photos and gather more walnuts. I too, walked around with blackened finger tips for days after opening the walnuts and my subsequent experiment to make ink from the husk, and I even illustrated my journal entry with that walnut ink! Like you, I was amazed at how small the actual nut was ( and how much work it took to get to that tiny nut). The tree itself was massive and my obsession with it lead to learning several math equations that helped me approximate the tree's age as well. I think this was one of my most favorite "finds" and the resulting journal pages remain some of my favorites!

  2. Wonderful comments, Gretchen! :-) You have me thinking about age estimations. I'm finding various methods of calculation that will require time to research.

    This stand of Walnuts is plagued by Celastrus orbiculatus, to the extent that I think it may kill them off. I'll be talking with the property owner about his treasures and this alien and invasive species. I've cut back some of this vine in my yard--it was overpowering my stately rhododendron. I'm all for live and let live but this Oriental Bittersweet is such an agressive bully.

    And as a bit of Nuncketest trivia, this vine was my very first species post way back in December 2008. In that photo is the rhody I mention here.

  3. AHA! I got my old journal out from autumn '05 and reread my entries about my black walnut- and guess what- in my notes and photos I had also recorded that my tree was being suffocated by a massive vine to the degree that some of the tree's branches were tangled beyond recognition. Looking at my old photos now, I can easily ID that vine: yup, oriental bittersweet. I had even taken close up photos of all the fantastical twisting vines, describing them like Alice (in Wonderland) as "curiouser and curiouser" .
    Using my little equation, and knowing that my tree's circumference was 128", I estimated my tree to be around 183 years old! And also on this journal page I had written a quote from Thoreau's own journal in 1852 about the black walnut: "Their shells are invigorating to smell-suggesting a strong, nutty native vigor".
    It was also on this same walk that I found seedpods of witch hazel - of course I had to take one home in hopes of witnessing it 'shoot' its seeds; as I was clipping one to put into my bag, another one actually 'fired' and hit my in the shoulder! They can shoot their seeds as far as 15 feet- it's true!!!

  4. We must be in parallel universes! :-)

    You know, just lately I've been reading up on Witch Hazel and I'm hoping to run across the flowers soon.

    Running late tonight--it's time to wrap up tomorrow's post!

  5. My mother and I used to sit at the kitchen table, smash black walnuts and pick the meats. It was an annual event in the fall. She would then use them to make Christmas cookies, a very special kind, white balls in powdered sugar with black walnut pieces inside. It took us the better part of a day to get the two cups of meats needed to make the cookies. Haven't tasted anything like it in many years. I liked the image you had of the walnut splayed in half. Would you mind if I used it in a logo I am designing for my new video production company? Thank you for sharing the glory. Kind Regards,