Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Black Walnut (juglans nigra)

I read somewhere that black walnut trees were once planted on farms to bring good luck.  When I was a kid and we lived in my grandmother’s house there was a black walnut tree that had been planted out back in on the edge of the woods.
I suppose people back then would have known not to plant the black walnut near where they were going to grow anything though they may not have known the name for the toxin the tree produces, juglone, which is lethal to most plants.
New England where my grandmother’s house is located is not the best climate for growing black walnuts as they prefer warmer less acidic soil but no one told the black walnut trees that for I can remember  there being several others on farms nearby as well.
At one time the tree was quite common but in colonial days it was used extensively because it didn’t easily rot when exposed to soil therefore, it was used for railroad ties and split rail fences.  It also does not split, warp or shrink so was a favorite wood in New England for making gun stocks.
Later people often considered it a nuisance, as did my mother, because, of course, of the nuts dropping.  Ours was at the edge of the woods so we didn’t have to clean it up but my mother considered it a nuisance because my father had taught we kids that we should bring the nuts home and throw them on the roof to dry the outer husk of the nut.  I have since learned that if removed when the husk is still green the nut tastes better but we let them dry because the husk if removed when green will leave your hands stained brown and the stain will only come off with time.  In order to crack the nut after the husk dried, my father raked the nuts off the roof and we put them on a tarp in the driveway.  He then ran over the nuts several times with whatever vehicle we happened to have at the time.
Our black walnuts were just treats for us. I don’t remember my mother collecting and using them for anything but historically black walnuts had many uses.  The Abneki and other Native Americans used a liquid made from the nutmeats as a substitute for mother’s milk.  Early European settlers made a hair dye, wood stain or ink from the husks.
Black walnuts are still harvested today with a commercial harvest of 50 pounds million nuts.  The shells are used as well as an abrasive for polishing engine parts and as an ingredient in cosmetics.  Humans are not the only ones that benefit from black walnuts.  Red, gray and flying squirrels eat the nuts and the leaves are a favorite food of the luna moth caterpillars.
The wood is still quite valued as well so much so that in recent years forestry officials have been called on to catch poachers.  In 2004 DNA testing was used to solve one poaching case that involved a 55 ft. tree valued at $2,500.
The largest black walnut is located on a residential property in Sauvie Island, Oregon. It is 8 feet 7 inches in diameter and 112 feet tall with a crown spread of 144 feet.


  1. Wow that big black walnut would cover my whole yard.

  2. We have some in the neighborhood though I think some folks are removing them as they consider them a nuisance

    1. And that is a shame considering all the uses there are for them. We don't have any here that I know of. There are very few nut trees here at all except oak.

  3. Great info Becky :)
    Makes me want plant one but we might have soil that is too acidic with all the conifers.

    1. Me too but afraid I don't have room for anything this big.

  4. I cracked a lot of them as a kid!

  5. My favorite ice cream in the whole world is Black Walnut. I can't find it anymore, not sure why.