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Let Black Walnuts season before cracking and eating

I’d process the Black Walnuts today but the car’s at the mechanic’s. So it will have to wait until tomorrow. I always look forward to this time of year, when I can use the car as a tool.

But first, let’s deal with some misconceptions about Black Walnuts. Most stem from the fact that people want to eat them before they’re ready, when they’re really tough to crack and haven’t achieved a full maturity of flavour. Black Walnuts should season for at least three months; a year is better.

I’m eating some saved last fall. The shell cracks neatly without exploding like a missile aimed at your eye, the meat falls away from its little compartments instead of being almost impossible to dislodge as it is when fresh, and the flavour is rich and creamy. If there were nut-tasting competitions as there are for wine or coffee, I imagine our native nuts would leave those Persian or English imports in the dust.

Here’s how you process your nuts. You know they’re ripe when the green globes fall to the ground. Then you’re up against the red squirrels, which can clean up a good drop of nuts overnight. But don’t collect your nuts and store them for working on later. The green husk will shrivel and turn black and mouldy very quickly, affecting the flavour of the nut inside.

So pick a time when you know you will be able to deal with them, gather a bucketful and spread the nuts on the driveway. Take a car, and drive it back and forth a few times until the husks are squished and split apart. Set the car aside and don some rubber gloves, because the next step involves handling the crop, and it gives off a brown dye that can stain your hands for several days.

The nuts can now easily be removed from the husks, but they don’t come away cleanly so plunge them into a bucket of water and scrub with a stiff brush. You’ll need to change the water a few times before the nuts are clean – and the water is full of a chemical secreted by the Black Walnut, which is toxic to some types of plants.

This had an interesting effect one year, when I did the scrubbing on the lawn. After I had poured off a couple of bucketfuls of dirty water, I noticed earthworms emerging from the grass. A closer look revealed many, many worms coming to the surface and moving away from the juglone-soaked area. I’m told by an Anishinaabe friend that her people used water in which Black Walnuts had soaked to catch fish: pour the water into the river and the fish will come to the surface, paralyzed, and can be scooped up. The worms that I saw weren’t paralyzed, far from it, they were scrambling faster than I’ve ever seen a worm move. Now I scrub on the driveway, aiming to inconvenience as few inverterbrates as possible. I return the husks to under the tree, figuring that’s the place the juglone can do the least harm.

The cleaned nuts should be spread in the sun to dry for a few days (don’t leave them where squirrels can get them - they really appreciate it when you’ve done all that husking and cleaning and will take every last one). Then hang in a mesh bag in a cool room.

There are specialized nutcrackers for dealing with hard-to-crack nuts – and although the Black Walnut is easier after seasoning, it’s still harder than the thin-shelled walnuts sold in grocery stores. The Master Nut Cracker I got from Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara on the Lake looks like a medieval instrument of torture but it is fun to use and definitely desirable for those whose hands aren’t strong. It can be adjusted for large or small nuts.

Since Black Walnuts are not generally available commercially (I did find some, shelled and packaged, at a Toronto health food store, on sale for a not inconsiderable price) a couple of Juglans nigra might be a worthwhile addition to your property if you have the space. They are a beautiful, majestic tree, growing quite rapidly until they reach their mature height of 30 metres. Plant in an open sunny spot in moist rich soil – not near your house. Those nuts land with quite a thump, they would drive you crazy hitting the roof.

There are some plants that will not grow under a Black Walnut because of the effect of the juglone, the chemical the tree releases to the soil which can inhibit growth. Members of the tomato and apple family do not survive, but many plants, especially native ones, are juglone-tolerant and can be used to create a natural woodland planting around Black Walnut – check this ministry of natural resources page and heres a link to one list of native and non-native plants.

Note: Potted Black Walnuts are available from Return of the Native
Anne Learn Sharpe
- 26 October 2013 at 08:48pm

I'm forwarding this to my sister--in the backyard of the house where we grew up is a magnificent walnut tree. This year for the first time we decided to save some nuts--gathered them in September and were going to leave them till next year to open. But it sounds like we've left them too long. We could try driving over them just for fun and see what happens. Next year we'll know what to do.
- 28 October 2013 at 04:20pm

Good luck! They are worth some effort...
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