Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 21, 2007

Those Orphan Nuts

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:56 pm

    Like unwanted kittens set upon a neighbor’s doorstep, the boxes of walnuts sit along the edge of our autumn roads. Crudely written letters scrawled across one side say “FREE” and beckon passersby to adopt the contents of the stained cardboard container.  Too big to ignore but too messy to process, many guilt-ridden homeowners rake up the green nut husks and put them out for adoption. These are the orphan black walnuts- the unwanted ones that mess up our cultured yards. 

  “They’re messy,” is the usual response of black walnut tree owners, “but someone out there can make use of the nuts.  I don’t have the time.”  This is where the guilt comes in.  The fact that folks will offer up their harvest acknowledges a deeper knowledge that Black Walnuts are valuable in some way; otherwise they’d simply bag them and throw ‘em out with the trash.

   The beautiful chocolate brown wood is perhaps the best known product from this tree. The rich heartwood was the historical standard timber used for making gunstocks, furniture, and even coffins.  Take a look at this photo and see if you can identify the walnut wood item that is above the rifle gunstock -the gun stock is stripped of its brass furniture. (Send me some answers and I’ll post it as a comment.)

   Black Walnuts are sturdy bottomland trees that are easily identified by their long compound leaves (a stalk with many leaflets), dark furrowed bark, and hard corrugated nuts (see a nice old botanical illustration here). Often the trees grow together in relatively open groves.  Their roots emit a toxin called Juglone (5-hydroxy-alphanapthaquinone in case you want to know) which discourages plants from growing within 50-60 feet of the trunk.  In mid October, the trees are best identified by their lack of leaves – they are among the first to shed – and by their crop of nuts encased within tennis ball like husks.

  I have processed the walnuts in my yard many times, so I can attest to the messy part of the task. Now I simply leave the nuts to the squirrels and they are more than willing to give them a good home. I’d challenge anyone, however, who hasn’t processed a few black walnuts to try it this season. If you don’t have walnuts in your yard or on your property, go ahead and take in a few of those boxes and give it a go. To do so taps into a time honored tradition.

  Getting at the nut involves removing the fleshy husk.  Each nut is enveloped in a protective green skin (take a look at a drawing I did of an un-husked nut). Normally, this husk rots away or is rendered into a black gooey soup by the larvae of the Walnut fly – either way; the mature nut is freed from its casing. Squirrels deftly peel the husk with a few simple moves, but people have more a challenge.

  There are as many ways to de-husk a walnut as there are to skin a cat.  Rolling them underfoot is a good way, although some will scatter them over the driveway and run them over with a car or truck (this automobile is normally over 6 years old and almost never a BMW). My preferred method is to drill a 2 inch hole in a board, place the whole husk over hole and drive it through with a hammer.  With this method, the nut goes through and the husk is left behind. If all else fails, put on a pair of rubber gloves and break open the husks and shuck them like corn.

  No matter how you husk them, always wear gloves when handling fresh walnuts.  The liquid sap turns dark brown upon contact with the air and permanently stains anything it comes in contact with. Walnut husk dyes were used by natives and settlers to give their cloth a rich yellow & mocha brown hue and walnut inks were used to scribe many an old time letter. You can replicate the old ways and make your own dyestuff or ink by soaking the husks in water for several days.  Boil down the contents and filter the resulting brew through some cheesecloth and you’ll have the essence of walnut ready to be employed.

  Once those nuts are husked, plunk them into a bucket of water to rinse them a bit. The bad
nuts will bob to the surface, so this is a good way to cull them out (don’t want no bad nuts lying about!).  Lay the rest out to dry and store them in a basket or burlap bag out in the garage until the time is right.

  Traditionally, Christmas time is the “right time” to break open the nuts and they should be ready for the final step in the nutting process. A hammer and a strong arm is necessary to crack open these well armored packages. The nut meats do not come out cleanly, like English Walnuts, because they are lobed and are well encased.  You will pretty much have to obliterate the nut shell with several mighty whacks before exposing all the meat.  Plink out the pieces with a nut pick and you’ll be rewarded with a precious little cup of walnuts to mix in with a batch of brownies.

  I have the feeling that some of you, perhaps most of you, will not take me up on my nutty challenge but that’s alright. All I ask is that you do a double take and give thoughtful consideration when you next pass a box of lonely nuts.


  1. It’s a boot jack.

    Comment by Ellen — March 13, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  2. I have recently been told that if you get whole black walnuts, crush them moderatly and soak them in water for 12 – 24 hrs. and drink it like a tea, that it is very good for lowering cholesterol, which my doctor is on me about! Please reply to my email.

    Thank You


    Comment by P. Foreman — July 13, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

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