Gorgeous, delicious and toxic!

Their nuts are super nutritious and a mouthful of earthy flavor.  Walnut wood has vivid grain.  When peeled, they reveal a muscular, sculptural beauty.  Everything about them is gorgeous. 0gz7rudi

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.

Most of the timers in this photo are black walnut.

Most of the timbers in this photo are black walnut.

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.9dg8poxl

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.


My work surface was a black walnut stump. Pretty soon, it was about buried in hammered husks.

 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.

IMG_2948 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.

IMG_2949 The cleaned nuts were spread out in a little hammock of chicken wire to dry.  Then stored in re-used paper bags to finish drying in the barn.15okfm3l

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.IMG_2936

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.x2dkejd5

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.IMG_2944

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. 952mosve

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?

8 replies

  1. please remove the “snow” from the pictures – it is really distracting. Your blog is really interesting, thanks!

    • Hi Eric,
      Thanks for the comment. That snow comes on automatically at this time of year on WordPress. I agree that it is a bit distracting, so I have de-activated it.

      Look forward to hearing more from you,

  2. At first seeing your photo of the walnut, it looks nothing like our eastern juglans niger. Yours looks more like juglans regia. Ours are pointed slightly both ends. I developed a cast nut cracker that opens them in usually 4 pieces of shell fracture.

    • Thanks for the walnut info. I’d love to know more about your cast nut cracker. I haven’t actually counted how many pieces of shell fracture I am getting. I’ll have to tune into that on my next cracking session. I just know it’s a lot easier and productive than my original pound-it-with-a-hammer technique.

      • Thanks for commenting, David.
        Having cracked a lot more nuts since blogging about it, I really love that walnut cracker. This year I got started late, but next year I’m planning to really put away a lot of nuts! My inner squirrel is growing.

  3. Hi Denise, thanks for the great article! It gave me some new ideas to try next year. I live in the city in Mineral Point, and we are surrounded by black walnuts … and lots of butternuts. These are distinguished by being oblong rather than the very round black walnut, and the flavor is much milder and sweet. I gathered them with rubber gloves and squashed them with my foot to get the hull off, then dried them … used a hammer … sooner or later we all got sick of that and the kids would break them with hammers every afternoon for the chickens–who really like them a lot. Free food win-win! I’ve heard that freezing the nuts after drying helps to release the nut, but I haven’t tried that yet. Someday we’ll try a nut cracker, there is definitely a great quantity of good walnuts around.

    • Hi Sarah,
      Nice to hear from you.
      Butternuts sound great. I don’t think we have any on our land.
      Just last night I finished cracking and then cleaning the very last of the black walnuts that I gathered. Many of them that I cracked and cleaned about a month ago were really moist, and even though I put them in the fridge, when I opened the containers, some of them had molded.
      That was sad, but a learning experience. After that I put them in the fridge with no lid, and those stayed fine. The batch last night was very dry, so they are going straight to the freezer.
      This year was kind of a test run for me. I’m looking forward to putting up a lot more next fall.
      Yesterday while snow shoeing, I came across many spots where squirrels have been digging down through the snow to find, crack and eat black walnut. I don’t think the very small percentage that I harvest will impact their food supply.

      • I agree, this has been a good test year! I have lived here for years and never looked at the walnuts in more than passing … now I see tons of great nuts! I had a little mold problem too in a box of nuts I was sure was dry, but before I cracked them, so I am going to try your chicken wire dryer next year and let them sit a little longer. Thanks for warning me about mold after, that would be a lot of wasted work! I worried the squirrels would carry off the ones I was drying, but it didn’t really happen–plus a second layer of chicken wire would probably fix that–but the kids raided a lot more of them than the squirrels did since hammering on mine was easier than finding their own. My only regret was I waited until the season was almost over before I started collecting them.

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