Black Walnut – Tree of Many Uses


Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of the most valuable native hardwood trees.  It has dark straight grained wood used for furniture and gunstocks.  If trunks are straight and no foreign material like nails are inside it likely would command the highest price per board foot of any tree on your property.

Black walnuts range over most of the eastern states from New York southward to Georgia and west to eastern Texas.  It is quite common in our region.  Leaves are alternate on the stem and each leaf contains many elongated blades.  If you cut a stem lengthwise you will notice a dark center that has air pockets or chambers in it.  This is called a chambered pith and is a primary identifying characteristic of black walnut and its cousin the butternut (Juglans cineria), whose range is a little more northern.  The only butternuts (white walnuts) found in North Carolina are in the western mountains.

Our native species has rich flavored nuts high in linolenic acid, an Omega 3 compound.  They also contain a compound called ellagic acid, an antioxidant which fights free radicals.  This compound also helps discourage cancer cells.

Nuts can be harvested once leaves begin to yellow and fall off.  If the squirrel population is high you will compete for them.  Nuts are covered by a thick light green husk, making them look a little like lemons or small tennis balls.  This husk must be removed or the bitter tannins in it along with mold residue can taint the nuts.  This task can be accomplished in several ways.  Commercial hullers are available but I use one of two methods, depending upon how many I have.

The first technique is to roll them under my foot on a concrete driveway until the husk loosens and comes off.  This works well if I have only a half bushel or so.  Large quantities can be hulled by spreading them out on a gravel driveway and driving over them for a few days.  You might damage a few, but you’ll get satisfactory results.  Once hulled the nuts can be dried and stored for a long time.

You can also crack them and seal the meats in freezer bags.  You can even lightly roast and seal them in heated canning jars with lids.  Now the cracking part can be a trick.  Shells are thick and you have to smack them firmly with a hammer.  The problem is that if you hit them too hard you will crush the delicate meats.  With a little practice it becomes easy.

Black walnut shells are very hard and used to polish metals.  Shells are ground and used in sand blasting equipment.  They can also be used in paints, cosmetics and explosives.

Walnut husks and inner bark can be used for many things, especially dyes.  Many cultures have used them medicinally, but any product that high in tannins would give me dosage concerns.  I’ve used bark and hulls to boil traps and tan hides.  I have some home recipes but will have to share them some other time.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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One Response to Black Walnut – Tree of Many Uses

  1. Its really annoying when you break the husk and get the brown residue on your hands. It takes almost a week to get it off fully

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