Black Walnut Trees: The Secrets Behind their Beauty and Bounty

black walnut tree planting

Facts About the Black Walnut Tree

The allure of black walnut trees has captivated furniture- and cabinetmakers for generations. The easily worked, close-grained wood is not only visually stunning but also highly durable. In fact, the demand for walnut veneer is so high that some individuals have resorted to nocturnal “walnut rustling” and even employed helicopters to pilfer these prized trees. Early settlers discovered the beauty of black walnuts in mixed forests spanning from Canada to northern Florida and west to the Great Plains. They quickly recognized the wood’s resistance to decay, utilizing it for various purposes such as fence posts, poles, shingles, and sills. Notably, when black walnuts grow in the forest surrounded by other trees, they grow tall with minimal lower branches. However, when planted in open spaces, they develop a more spread-out shape, allowing for easier harvesting of their sweet, round nuts. Settlers savored these nutritious nuts on their own, incorporating them into soups, stews, and baked goods. The hard shells also provided excellent storage, ensuring a bountiful supply of nuts throughout the winter.

Black Walnut Trees: The Secrets Behind their Beauty and Bounty

The “Dark Side” of Black Walnuts

While black walnut trees offer numerous benefits, there is a catch. The roots of these trees can extend more than 50 feet from the trunk and release a natural herbicide called juglone. This substance is also present in the leaves and fruit husks of the tree. Juglone serves a purpose—it inhibits the growth of many plants under and around the black walnut tree, limiting competition for water and nutrients. However, this means that certain plants, such as tomatoes, potatoes, apples, pears, berries, and select landscape plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, and lilacs, may be killed or stunted if grown too close to black walnut roots or within the tree’s drip line. Therefore, it is crucial to plan your landscaping accordingly!

A Great Shade Tree

Despite the limitations imposed by juglone, black walnut trees are excellent choices for providing shade on larger properties. These majestic trees can grow to heights of 50 feet or more, with some specimens reaching over 100 feet. Their large, fernlike foliage creates a light and airy shade, perfect for grasses and ground covers that are not affected by juglone. Furthermore, the leaves turn a vibrant yellow in the autumn, beautifully contrasting with the tree’s rugged, dark bark. Black walnuts thrive in deep, fertile soil with a near-neutral or slightly acidic pH. They are remarkably disease-resistant and face few threats from pests.

Picking Up the Nuts

Ah, the love/hate relationship walnut tree owners have with the tree’s fruit! From late summer to October, these trees drop lime green, baseball-sized nuts that can create quite a mess. Many walnut tree owners spend hours picking up the fallen fruit. Leaving them be means tripping over rotting and molding nuts throughout the year, so it’s best to take care of them promptly. You can even hire a neighborhood kid to help with the task, but be mindful not to pay them per nut—a hefty bill is the last thing you want!

Black Walnut Trees: The Secrets Behind their Beauty and Bounty

Harvesting and Eating Black Walnuts

If you’re willing to put in a little effort, cracking open the outer shell reveals the delectable “meat” inside the black walnut. Squirrels have no trouble chewing through these shells, but you’ll need a bit more finesse. It’s worth it, though—the sweet and earthy nutmeat is a delicacy. Your grandparents may have harvested these walnuts and enjoyed them raw or added them to baked goods, such as cookies and bars. They can also be used as toppings for ice cream and cakes or enjoyed as sweetened candy nuts. For a unique twist, grind them into meal to make a one-of-a-kind flour. To harvest black walnuts, collect them as soon as possible to avoid mold and remove the husks immediately. Wearing gloves is essential as the husks can stain your hands and anything they touch. If the nut feels too hard, wait a few days for it to brown and soften. To remove the husks, gently step on them with an old pair of shoes or hose them down in a large bucket to fully clean them. Dry the walnuts on a screen, drying rack, or in a hanging mesh bag for a couple of weeks. You can store unshelled walnuts for up to a year. To access the nutmeat, crack the shell with a hammer by striking at a 90-degree angle to the seam. Use pliers to clip away the shell. Let the freshly removed nutmeat dry for a day before storing.

Do you have a black walnut tree? Share your experiences, questions, and advice with us!

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