Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street —by Jinny Batterson
The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.
We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.
The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.
For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.
Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change.
This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.
We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.