black walnuts on the ground

Aw, Nuts!

Outside my office window, the black walnut trees are dropping their fruit. The round, green husks fill the yard, and while the lawn mower is no fan of these fallen fruits, the resident squirrels are in a foraging frenzy! About the size of a baseball and almost as hard, walnut husks can make a nasty knot on your noggin if you walk under one in mid-descent. But the tasty treat inside the walnut’s shell can (nearly) make you forget your headache. The walnut family (genus Juglans) includes more than 15 nuts native to Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The English walnut originated in Persia (modern-day Iran). 

Black walnut trees in autumn
Black walnut trees in autumn, located behind the museum's offices. 

It is the most widely grown and consumed worldwide. The black walnut is a species native to eastern North America. 

The walnut is an ancient nut, believed to have existed in its wild form when Neanderthal man was alive, about 50,000 B.C. Domesticated by 10,000 B.C., the nut was familiar to people in the Middle East and is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Persian traders introduced the walnut to Europe, and most English-speaking people initially called it the “Persian walnut.” However, British sailors helped spread the nut tree’s seeds globally, and it eventually became known as the “English walnut.” The tree, however, didn’t grow well in eastern North America. The black walnut reigned supreme here, where American Indians used it for centuries. The English walnut took root in California in the 1700s, and today, the Diamond Walnut Growers, Inc., of Stockton, California, is the world’s largest walnut processor.

The black walnut is the tallest tree in the walnut family, with heights up to 150 feet. Its fine straight-grained wood makes it highly prized for furniture and gun-stocks, and Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt are believed to have used the durable ink made from its husks. 
Because of the black walnut’s rock-hard nutshells and somewhat oily-tasting nutmeats, it has been commercially cultivated and processed in the United States only in Alabama and Missouri. 

However, many bakers prize the black walnut over its English cousin, especially at the holidays, when its flavor blends beautifully with flour, sugar, cinnamon, and butter. Walnuts are one of my favorite foods. Give me a sweet potato casserole with walnuts or a black walnut pound cake, and I really can’t blame the squirrels for enjoying this nut. 

grey squirrel with walnut
Hanrahan, Christine. "Grey squirrel with walnut" photograph. Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club. 10 December 2012. 



Hughes, Meredith Sayles. Hard to Crack: Nut Trees. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications    Company, 2001.
Kirkman, L. Katherine, Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold. Native Trees of the    Southeast: An Identification Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2007.
“Walnuts.” Wikipedia. Retrieved 19 October 2023.


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