Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Juglans nigra

I love fall foraging far too much to mourn the passing of summer. This is the season of hips and haws, nuts and roots and knowing that first kiss of frost will sweeten so many fruits and mellow the bitter bite of dandelion greens. I am especially excited for black walnut season this year, as many of the trees I've been keeping an eye on, look to drop a pretty decent crop.

The ADG and I spent a night in nearby Perth on the long weekend, and while walking through beautiful Stewart Park and around town, we realised that this picturesque place is full of gorgeous black walnut trees!

It's a touch early in the season yet, and most of the nuts are still attached to their branches, but a recent storm had let loose enough that, as we walked, we gathered what we found on the ground.
I love the clean, citrus-y smell of black walnut hulls, that comes from the chemical juglone. It's very antiseptic and in herbal medicine the hulls are used to treat a variety of conditions including parasites and skin conditions like ringworm and fungal infections. The round shape make the nuts fun to play with and roll around in your hand like Chinese medicine balls. Nature's hand sanitizer! They're great to give to kids to play with, to help keep those little hands germ free.

That same chemical juglone is allelopathic to most other plants. That means walnuts excrete the chemical to ward off competition from anything else that might want to grow too close to it. Here is a perfect example of the chemical warfare going on. I have no idea what tree the grapevine in this pic has completely taken over, but I can see the walnut right next to it no problem. The grapevine will get no foothold there.

Interestingly, the chemical is also toxic to black walnut babies. The parent tree doesn't even want its own children to get too close. Which is why the nut has such a smooth, round husk. When it falls from the branch it has a much better chance of bouncing and rolling far enough away and out of reach of the chemical influence of the parent. So in this case, the "apple" does fall far from the tree (or at least tries to).
Not all of them fall on the ground though. The ADG spotted this nut from the bridge and went down to retrieve it. Can you see it?

Good eye. Thanks ADG, you're awesome!

We hit the jackpot behind a municipal building and filled our sack to the top, while still leaving plenty behind for the squirrels.

Harvesting is the easy part. Processing black walnuts is a bit labour intensive and finicky work. First, the hulls need to be removed. Removing them without gloves will stain your hands dark brown for weeks and weeks and weeks. I learned this, literally first hand, a couple of years ago. Oh and the hulls sometimes have maggots in them, which is gross, but harmless to the quality of the nut.

Next, the shells need to dry and cure for about 6 weeks. Finally, you can crack them open to enjoy the absolutely delicious nut inside. However, the shells are damn hard to crack and the nuts are comparatively small. Many a home inventor has tried to come up with a decent way to crack the shell and remove the nut easily. Why would someone go through all that effort you might ask? Did I mention how absofrigginlutely delicious the nut is? It really is an amazing tasting nut. Seriously.

Thankfully, Perth isn't the only burg 'round these parts where black walnuts grow. The tree is native to Eastern North America and there are many black walnuts growing in and around the Ottawa area. I've mapped out over a dozen in my wider neighbourhood alone. This time of year I often find evidence of black walnuts when squirrels leave behind the chewed off husks on the sidewalk and paths. Then I know to look up and around for a tree nearby. Last year I found a black walnut tree after spying a squirrel running away with a big green nut in its mouth!

If you find a black walnut, only harvest what has fallen on the ground as those are the ones that will be ripe. If you find a tree growing on private property, it might be worth chatting with the owner. Many people find the nuts a real nuisance. They get caught in the lawn mower and can stain light coloured objects. They will probably be happy to have you take them away.

Here is some helpful information on processing black walnuts, and some more info on the medicinal uses.


Carolyn said...

How ironic! i started harvesting nuts we've found on the ground just this week; so it was good to see your post! Thanks for the info on the hand staining. I did not know that. Might have been embarrassing, working retail with brown-splotched hands!
Great post, keep up the good work!

CallieK said...

You leave some for the squirrels?? Around here I'm lucky if the squirrels leave a single nut for me! I just checked and the trees that were loaded last week are already stripped bare- I swear black walnuts are like crack for squirrels. Last year I picked two large bagfulls and the squirrels broke into my house and stole every last one.

Amber said...

Hi Carolyn. Yes! Do wear rubber gloves. I made the mistake of wearing cloth gloves the first time. That does NOT work. :)

Callie, I don't usually worry about the squirrels getting their fair share of black walnuts, but there were so many in this one spot we couldn't take them all. I can't believe the squirrels broke into your house!