Under the Spreading Walnut Tree: Black Walnut
The house where I grew up was a wonderful mixture of nooks and crannies, landings and hideyholes. It was built in 1920 by my grandfather and his brothers in the fashion of the day. My grandfather was no longer living, and when Dad came back from the Philippines following WWII, we moved into the house with my Granny Ninna. She planned to travel far and wide to visit my aunts who by then had married, moved out of state, and had families of their own. So my dad got the house and the 50 acres of mountain that went with it, Ninna got to travel during the winter months, and my aunts were given land in case they ever returned to the mountains. Best of all, I got to grow up in an enchanted house. The trees had only been cleared in the little piece of land where the house stood. In what was meant to be a yard, tall locusts, poplars, maples and a black walnut stood watch over the house. I knew all I needed to know about those particular trees. The locusts were thorny, the leaves of the poplars could be made to pop really loud, the maples held my front and back yard swings, and the black walnut..... Well, can we just say that the walnut and I had a major feud going on between us?
The black walnut tree grew in Mom's side flower garden, its trunk only a few feet from my bedroom window. Its branches towered overhead, and many of them stretched far enough to shade my room. This was wonderful in spring and summer because we had no air conditioning and my screened window was left open through the warm months. There was no problem until fall, when the walnut tree began to drop its fruit onto the tin roof over my bed. Have you ever heard a dozen speed boats rev up, all at the same time? If you have, then please keep that sound in mind as you read this story.
Black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) grow in fertile soil and they can grow to 100 feet in height. They have a diameter of 2 to 4 feet. Walnut is a wonderful wood, absolutely beautiful, and builders prize it. The fruit of the walnut tree is another prized gift that the tree brings to us. It is covered with a thick hull, and even though it is just a little bigger than a golf ball, let me tell you it packs a whallop when it falls on your head! I knew from day one to never stand under the walnut tree when the leaves began to turn to red and gold. My mom had a rosebush, a daylily or two, begonias, bee balm, and some potted plants beneath the walnut tree, but most were dormant and the potted plants were inside by the time the walnuts fell. It was my job to keep the walnuts picked up from wherever they landed and placed in buckets. I learned to dodge falling walnuts pretty well, otherwise I would have surely met my demise underneath that walnut tree.
Great Aunt Bett valued walnuts for their medicinal qualities, and along with her salves and balms, she gave a lot of shelled walnuts as Christmas gifts. They were much appreciated. Gathering, hulling, and drying them was a process that took several weeks, so we started on it as soon as the walnuts dropped from the tree. I wasn't very concerned about whether or not the walnut had vitamins or anything else, I was only interested in the chocolate candy with walnuts in every bite that was my mom's trademark. We had it quite often over the winter months, and especially at Christmastime.
Gathering walnuts when they fall from the tree is the first step. Putting them out to dry on a flat surface is the second, and when they dry enough for the thick hull to pull away from the hard shell of the nut, then comes the messiest job you can ever imagine. The stain the hulls leave on your hands is nearly impossible to wash off. Normally I enjoyed all dyes that came from plants, but not the stain that walnut hulls left behind. It was hard to believe that dark brown stain was ever used for dye. The good thing was that most of the kids in my class also had dark brown stained hands to match mine. It was our job as kids to harvest the walnuts. The fruit itself is a large rounded brownish black nut with a hard thick finely ridged shell. The shell encloses a thick oily kernel that has a very interesting flavor. The worst thing we ever did as kids was to play dodgeball with walnuts. Ouch.
The black walnut is high in fats and calories and should be eaten in moderation. On the other hand, it is rich in protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and folic acid. It contains a wealth of minerals and iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. Walnuts also contain vitamin E, making it high in antioxidants. You can store black walnuts in the shell for 6 to 8 months without spoilage, and if they are shelled they can be frozen and stored long term in the freezer. Another old memory is that if you shake a walnut and it rattles, that means it is old and dried up and should be discarded. Aunt Bett sometimes boiled the leaves for a type of laxative, and she knew that the nut was necessary for a well rounded diet, but I don't remember anything specific she used the nut for. I have read that many years ago the walnut was used to calm hysteria, eliminate morning sickness and to treat head and body lice. It must have worked because I don't remember ever seeing a pregnant woman who was sick, hysterical or had lice. Maybe that is what Aunt Bett used it for.
There is a chemical in black walnut roots that transmits a growth-inhibitor. It keeps many other trees and plants from growing near it, even other walnuts. The chemical is called juglone, and the toxic zone from a mature tree occurs on average in a 50-60 foot radius from the tree. Some plants it does not seem to bother. My mother had roses beneath our walnut tree, and they undoubtedly are still happily blooming. Other plants that seem not to be bothered by the chemical include Japanese Maple, Southern Catalpa, Eastern Redbud, and some Hemlocks. From observation, these plants also will grow there: Clematis, Euonymus, Rose of Sharon, Virginia creeper and most Viburnum species. Most annuals will grow beneath the walnut tree, and some perennials including the daylily, coralbells, hollyhock, bee balm, spiderwort, and white Trillium. If you have a black walnut, it might be wise to have soil tested for the chemical that the roots produce, because not all plants will act the same in varying soil conditions.
It has been a long time since I listened with pillows over my head to the thunder of the walnuts on my roof. It has also been a long time since I ate a piece of my mom's Chocolate Walnut Fudge candy. I can't make it nearly as well as she did, but I will share her recipe with you and hope you do better than I did.
This is from a recipe book from the 50's:
Mom's Dark Chocolate Walnut Fudge
2 Cups sugar
2 Tablespoons corn syrup
2/3 Cup cocoa
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Cup milk
!/2 teaspoon oleo
1/2 to 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped only slightly
1 teaspoon vanilla
Stir sugar, syrup, cocoa, salt and milk over low heat until sugar dissolves. Cook gently, stirring occasionally until mixture forms a soft ball when dropped in cold water. Remove from heat. Add butter, but do not stir until sides of pan feel warm to hands. Add vanilla and nuts and beat until cool. Pour into greased pan and cut when completely cool.
Sources for this article : www.vegparadise.com/highestperch411.html#Nutrition http://ostermiller.org/tree/blackwalnut.html
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Equilibrium, Jeff Beck and Zuzu.