Today I’m giving a big shout-out to my friend Judy from church. This year, she gave me black walnuts for the second time. Black walnuts are revered in my family — another family friend used to give us jars of them that we used in cooking and baking.
That friend also enjoyed shelling the nuts, so we just received the nut meat (with a few stray shell shards). Judy, however, gave me the whole nut, which opens up all kinds of possibilities beyond culinary options.
With walnut hulls in hand, I’ve added to my to-do list — fiber dyeing, hair dyeing (my own, or for any friends who want a temporary change of brunette shade) and ink making. All sound relatively simple from instructions I’ve found, but expect upcoming columns detailing the trials and tribulations of these projects.
While researching my soon-to-be hobbies and projects, I learned something about the majestic black walnut tree. This species, Juglans nigra, is native to North America, unlike the English walnut, Juglans regia, which is native to southwest China, Himalayas and west to the Balkan region — and now cultivated around the world.
If you go shopping for walnuts you’ll most certainly find the English walnut. Historically prized for a variety of uses in this part of the world, native black walnuts are less popular at present.
Native people and settlers snacked on the meat of these nuts. Sharper, and more intense than English walnuts, the flavor actually hurts my mouth if I eat them raw (although I don’t think this is an issue for most people), and they offer a nice kick in cakes, banana bread and other dishes.
This year, after boiling down a batch of maple syrup, I made maple ice cream, as I did last year (out of this world deliciousness, lemme tell you) and added freshly cracked black walnuts. While the flavor was something definitely worth writing about, I was also thrilled making a 99% local dessert.
I used eggs from my family’s chickens, cream and milk from Windy Ridge Dairy, my own maple syrup and, of course, Judy’s black walnuts. The only non-local ingredient was a pinch of salt (bought from the bulk section at the co-op in Morgantown). I’ve been meaning to pick up some J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works salt, and then I can have the satisfaction of knowing it is 100% local.
But I digress. Back to black walnuts. The trees, prized for shade, grow 50-75 feet wide and high (and sometimes taller), in a naturally rounded shape with leaves up to two feet long, with five to 11 leaflet sets along a central axis.
The beautiful walnut color and grain were and are still beloved by woodworkers: so much so that tree rustlers have cut and sold walnut trees to mills and at auction for quite a chunk of change. An outbreak of black walnut theft occurred in the 1970s, and from what I found online it seems like it happened before that, and might still be happening today.
I’m still hoping to find some of these fantastic trees growing on my family’s property. If I plant any, I’ll have to locate them carefully because black walnuts produce their own herbicide, called juglone. The juglone roots can inhibit growth of — or even kill — tomatoes, potatoes, berries, apples, pears, rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants, if grown too close.
I’ve come across few plants that have inspired me in such diverse ways as the black walnut. Let the crafting and cooking commence.
ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She explores possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.