A culinary and carpentry superstar with magical, medicinal properties.
Finally! Awbury Arboretum gives us the scoop on those big shade trees dropping fruit that looks like hard tennis balls on local streets and lawns this time of year. Meet the Eastern Black Walnut, a standout species with an intriguing backstory and a unique place in Pennsylvania’s history and folklore.
First things first: it’s true! There are edible walnuts in those lime-green globes! Black walnuts are prized for their intense earthy-sweet flavor that’s often described as “woodsy”, “smoky” or “acquired” 🤭. Quite different than the milder English walnuts commonly found in supermarkets. The texture is also harder, denser, and almost oily – it’s full of nutrients, including the most protein of any other tree nut in the world. You have to work for it, though. Extracting this meat is a whole involved process.
Harvesting the seeds themselves is deceptively easy as they fall naturally from the tree for anyone to gather. From this point, the green husk dries to black/brown, and soon you’ll hear the nut rattling around inside it. Now it’s hammer time — literally! Takes a lot of force to bash out the nuts, which are coated with a goopy pulpy residue that needs to be thoroughly washed off. Once clean, they need to dry and cure for several weeks before you can shell them and extract the nut meat, which is usually roasted and consumed quickly as Black Walnuts turn rancid in 2 – 4 weeks at room temperature. Whew!
For Black Walnut’s many fans throughout the centuries, the time and effort is well worth it. Indeed, many First Nations people even went a step further, grinding the nut meat with water to make “milk” that was enjoyed plain and also incorporated into soups, puddings and sauces. Early European settlers quickly welcomed Black Walnuts into Holiday cooking, in particular, and even today many recipes for traditional cakes, cookies and pies feature Black Walnuts.
Black Walnut is particularly familiar to Pennsylvanians because it’s a favorite wood for our state’s Amish carpenters and craftsmen. Black Walnut is workable, durable, and beautiful, much admired for its rich, dark natural tones and fine, straight grain. It’s rather rare and expensive today: you’ll see it used for fine furniture, custom gunstocks, high quality cabinets, flooring, musical instruments and more.
Even Black Walnut’s old dry hulls are useful, as they can be boiled down to create a lovely deep cocoa brown dye for all manner of cloth and yarn (even hair!). They can be brewed into teas and distilled into tinctures with anti-fungal, antiviral and anti-parasitic properties. The tree’s roots excrete “juglone”, a powerful herbicide that keeps other trees from growing too close, and competing for resources.
In Appalachian folklore, the Black Walnut tree is a sign of prosperity – one is often carried for good luck, or also to prevent headaches. In the American Hoodoo tradition, Black Walnut shells are used in spells to fall out of love. Shells are also thought to represent the human skull, with the lobed nut meat resembling a brain inside; thus, many folk remedies for mental afflictions include Black Walnuts.
🌳 Five Fast Black Walnut Facts 🌳
- Black Walnuts trees are “pioneer species”, meaning it will be one of the first species to grow in barren spaces. It may have a life span of more than 250 years.
- The primary beneficiaries of the tree’s nuts are squirrels (the eastern fox squirrel gets 10 percent of its diet from Black Walnuts)
- The eastern screech owl roosts on the limbs of Black Walnut trees.
- The tree is self-fertile (as are all walnut varieties), meaning that pollen can travel by wind from the male parts to the female parts of the same tree and under this procedure the tree can produce nuts. Thus, a single tree can theoretically produce nuts without needing other walnut trees around.
- The wood of the tree was used for “talking sticks” by some Native American tribes. A talking stick, also known as a speaker staff, was used in council meetings as a way to recognize who had the right to speak while all others must listen quietly and respectfully.
MUCH MORE in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s excellent original article – including where you can find a fetching specimen to admire at Awbury Arboretum, a free public space with some truly “tree-mendous” events throughout the year.
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Read last month’s Local article here.
The Arboretum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.