Black Walnut: From Making Candy to Cabinetry

If squirrels did not exist, deer hunters would be a lonely bunch during the fall and early winter. Squirrels have a comedic routine of running up and down trees and limbs while chasing after each other and foraging for various nuts. This routine never seems to bore their human counterparts who are eagerly awaiting the sound and sight of deer from afar. For those hunters who choose to wait for their prey up in trees, squirrels can be the primary entertainment. Last autumn I watched squirrels chase after shagbark hickory nuts mostly, but some were lucky enough to grab a few walnuts from black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees growing nearby as well.

The habitat I hunt is ideally suited for black walnut and many other deciduous hardwoods as well. The soil is well-drained, deep and rich from periodic flooding from the nearby Wallkill. Rich soils such as this site will support taller growing, healthier trees. The black walnut I saw there was at least 60 feet tall, but black walnut can reach over 100 feet. The tallest black walnut on record was 130 feet tall and surprisingly found growing in Oregon. Black walnut is mostly found in the eastern United States with some populations in Canada. It is at home in Indiana and surrounding states such as Iowa which has designated it as their state tree. 

The easiest manner in identifying black walnut is by the large, round, green fruit or nuts that can be seen in late summer and early autumn. The outer green contains the husk that protects the nut of the walnut inside and is also quite aromatic but can stain the hands pretty well when handling. Black walnuts do not produce nuts each year, but usually every 2 to 3 years provide an abundant yield of nuts called a bumper crop. The leaves of the black walnut are compound and pointed. There can be anywhere from 12 to 23 leaflets per leaf. These leaves are one of the first to fall in autumn before other trees. The bark of a mature black walnut is thick, blackish brown and deeply furrowed. It can be easily confused for a white ash that also has compound leaves with deeply furrowed bark. However, black walnut has an alternate-shaped twig pattern whereas ash has opposite. Another tree that is easily confused with it is butternut or white walnut. Butternut has lighter bark than black walnut and the nuts are oval shaped rather than round.

Squirrels have been coined by some as forest architects by accidentally planting thousands of nuts per acre each year. Black walnuts have been planted by squirrels as well as humans most likely for thousands of years. Some scholars now believe that black walnut was planted by Native Americans because of its sporadic and haphazard presence throughout the eastern United States where humans have lived in the past. In planting the black walnut, easier access could be gained to some of the many benefits of the tree. Walnuts were a staple in the Native American diet. The walnut is rich in protein, fat, phosphorus, iron and vitamin E. They were eaten raw, cooked, boiled, with soups, baked, or dried and ground into flour. Brown dyes were made from the husks while black dyes were made from the roots. Similar to other trees, the inner bark of black walnut was also used in making a tea used for an emetic (induced vomiting) and laxative. Black walnut bark was also chewed for toothaches. Strong tinctures were made from the leaves and nuts to treat bilious and cramp colic. The nut itself is rich in manganese and can help cartilage and nerves.

When the settlers came to North America they too put the black walnut to use, though more for wood products. At first, black walnut was used for fence-posts after forest lands had been cleared for pasture and livestock. The heartwood of walnut is decay-resistant and makes durable posts. After fence-posts had been erected and the first homesteads secured, many other wood products of black walnut were realized. Black walnut wood is beautiful! The heartwood is chocolate brown surrounded by a layer of white sapwood. The wood is strong, durable, takes a nail well and is good on tools when worked upon. The popularity of black walnut wood grew rapidly across the US. It soon appeared in church alters, gunstocks, tables, cabinetry and enough other items to create a list to fill a book. The price of walnut peaked in the 70s and never reclaimed its fame. But when it was in demand one single large, straight-growing, defect-free veneer tree could bring in over $5000! During that time, walnut tree-jackers were numerous and their means highly creative and lucrative. In some cases, even helicopters were said to be used in jacking the trees off various properties.

Black walnut also serves other purposes today besides the wood products industry. The shells of walnuts are used as abrasives to sandblast metal in the aircraft, automobile and cosmetics industries. The petroleum oil industry uses the shells as additives in drilling fluid. Paint companies use the shells as filler for textured paints and jet engines are cleaned by them as well. Personally, I believe the best use for black walnut is in the mixture of maple syrup and walnuts cooked down and stirred into maple walnut candy.

Over 20 species of birds somehow have learned to crack walnuts and feed upon its delicious nut-meat. Still, squirrels make up the largest wildlife component that forages upon the nuts. Though black walnuts can be messy, they are a beautiful tree that can live over 250 years old. If you are interested in planting one keep it away from your garden or other plantings. Black walnut contains an organic herbicide called juglone. The chemical is found within the leaves, husks and roots. It can stunt or kill certain plant species in a process called allelopathy. Susceptible species include: apple, tomatoes, pear, white and red pines, blackberries, blueberries and young walnuts. If you want to plant black walnut you will need to protect it. Deer, of course, will browse on the buds of walnut. I watched them browse on the buds of a walnut branch the day after I pruned the branch for clearing my hunting shooting lanes.

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