THE WAY OF THE BLACK WALNUT – GORGEOUS, DELICIOUS AND TOXIC
Black walnuts are intense trees.
But black walnuts bite!
In Madison, we had a black walnut growing in front of our house – right where we parked our cars. The pounding those cars got when the nuts fell left a dappled texture of the sort people expect from a hail storm. That was the price we had to pay to park next our house.
What I’m not so wild about is that walnuts do not play well with others. They produce juglone in their leaves, roots, husks, fruit and bark. This is an alleopathic compound – a substance that the walnut uses to inhibit the metabolic function of other plants – many other plants. Check out this Iowa State University site for a list of what plants juglone attacks and doesn’t.
Be that as it may, these killer trees are native to the Midwest, and they have been growing very happily on our land since long before we moved here. We used a number of black walnuts for branching timbers and shelving in our house, and I am learning to make my peace with them.
This year I decided to bond by harvesting some of their very prolific nuts. I didn’t start very early, and wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Black walnut kernels have a reputation of being challenging to access. The tasty nuts are packed into convoluted and very hard shells. The shells are encased in a thick, tough husk that starts out looking green and gradually turns to dark brown mush. Green or brown, the husks can stain your clothes, hands and tools a deep and lasting brown.
I collected about 50 gallons of them by walking our trails with 2 5-gallon plastic buckets balanced by rope from our yoke.
I have since read that walnuts taste better if the husk is removed while green, but I collected many of mine after the husks turned brown, so we shall see about that.
Some people remove those pesky husks off by placing them the drive and rolling the car back and forth over them. I followed the advice of a You-tube presenter who hammered off his husks. That worked well with the green ones, and by that I mean, it was pleasant to sit outside, listening to a recorded book on my smart phone and enjoying the pleasant view for 30-40 minutes per 5-gallon bucket. A bucket of gathered walnuts produced half a bucket of hulled nuts.
Next I took each half bucket of hulled nuts over to the water faucet and filled the bucket with water. Any floaters were removed. Then I dropped our pitch fork into the bucket and rotated it vigorously for a few minutes. That turned the water almost black. Then I carried the buckets down the drive to an area where I don’t care if it is stained or toxic and poured out the black water. I rinsed them one or two more times – depending on my mood.
How to crack these Fort Knox of nuts? I tried pounding them with my hammer, but that was hard and tended to mash the kernels badly. Then I remembered an article in the recent Mother Earth News about a hard shell nutcracker from Lehman’s.
It cost $70, but we decided that it could be worth it over the years. Doug and I are vegetarian, and we eat a lot of nuts. I am also entranced by the idea of adding such a nutritious food source to our local list.
The nutcracker works very well. It is designed to deliver a measured amount of pressure to the nut in a vertical direction and to make cracking easier with the use of a long lever. The nuts crack into pieces, the shells fly everywhere, so I do this step outside. When I fill a bowl, I take them inside and remove the kernels with a standard nut pick.
Some of them come out in fine, large pieces. Others have to be clawed out of convoluted recesses and get ground to pulp in the process. That walnut mush made us think about nut butter, so we tossed our first few cups into the food processor and pureed them.
Black walnuts have a much stronger, earthier flavor than the English walnuts we get in the store. Because of that, I pureed up a couple cups of English walnuts and blended the two together. It’s still quite a mouthful of flavor and tastes amazing with our raspberry preserves, pear butter or some good, local honey (see my post Where Is Your Honey From? ).
I’m here to say, that the ending up with black walnuts in our diet seems well worth the trouble.
Have you tried harvesting black walnuts?
What is your advice?