If you live anywhere in the Eastern or Central United States, you have probably seen a black walnut tree. Black walnuts (juglans nigra) grow from New England through Wyoming and are wildly prolific. Just try digging up a sapling somewhere… they root in like a badass and if you don’t want that tree to grow in that spot, you’ll be facing a years-long battle to get it to go away.
I have four black walnut trees in my yard, thankfully all positioned around the chicken and duck coops out back. They provide much-needed shade and shelter for the birds, and it doesn’t matter that nothing else will grow underneath them back there because the birds just tear it all up anyway. That’s right– if you want to purposefully plant and grow a black walnut, plan on being lucky if grass grows underneath the fully mature trees, let alone anything else. The roots of the tree emit a substance called juglone, which stunts the growth of other plants in the area. Basically, black walnut trees are selfish bastards.
Black walnut leaves and the hulls of the nuts are one of the best known vermifuges available in wildcrafting. That means if you get worms, you can help expel the parasites in your body with the tincture or infused vinegar made from those ingredients (a tea made from the leaves can help too.) The catch is that the active components are only active while the husk of the nut is still green. So buying this compound dried is pretty useless.
Black walnut trees tend to create a mast crop of nuts every 2-3 years, so some years, even if you have a big tree, you won’t really see any nuts. That’s totally fine by me, since the damned squirrels eat more than half my nuts even in a good year. I still need to catch and eat one of those furry little turds one of these days…
In early spring, I tried tapping my trees for syrup for the first time ever. Unless you happen to have a whole grove of these trees at your disposal, I would not recommend you bother tapping them. Out of four trees only one produced any usable amount of sap, and once it was boiled down it was thin and runny and equaled maybe 1/4 cup out of what had been a gallon of liquid. In my experience it was not worth it, and tapping the tree can result in a reduced nut harvest so I’m not going to bother doing that again.
This year happened to be a mast year for my trees, and I set to collecting bucket loads of them starting in early October. Earlier in the season, when the nuts were still small, I crafted a batch of nocino, a liqueur that now smells absolutely heavenly and I need to start tasting. I also made a big batch of natural poultry de-wormer using the green walnut hulls that I had cut off the nuts along with wormwood, mugwort, raw garlic, and raw apple cider vinegar. This is still macerating on the counter, and will be added to the birds’ water by the tablespoonful several times over the course of the winter, when intestinal parasites like to strike.
Anyway, my pro tip for you if you are going to harvest black walnuts is to a.) wear gloves because the walnuts stain your hands dark brown and b.) start cutting the hulls off when still green, because the black ones are super gross and slimy and often full of bugs. You just need a small sharp paring knife and a few buckets.
Here’s the process using 5 gallon sized buckets:
One bucket full of walnuts you picked up off the ground (don’t pluck them off the tree)
One empty bucket for hulls/junk
One bucket filled at least halfway with water
A lawn chair and hours of time on your hands listening to a podcast or something
Sit in your chair and put gloves on. Pick up a walnut from the full bucket. Hold that in one hand and use opposite hand to cut a cross X around the nut. Use fingers to pry the sections off and toss into empty bucket (keep some to use for tincture or de-wormer but you will have PLENTY.) Then toss the inner nut into the bucket of water. If it floats, it’s a bad nut and you can just toss it in the junk bucket. If it sinks, leave it for now because you’ll collect the good ones later. The nuts that sink are good to eat… black gold nuggets, if you will.
Once your bucket of nuts is empty, dump the nut hulls in the woods or somewhere that you don’t want anything else to grow. It’s almost as effective as salting the earth. Your water bucket (which is now full of scary black water) you can dump slowly over the top of an old window screen (or build a screen with find hardware cloth) and spread the nuts out, preferably in the sun or someplace warm and dry. If you bring them indoors, make sure they stay dry and don’t get moldy. That means if you put them in your basement (like I did) you need to keep the dehumidifier running or start your wood stove so the nuts can cure properly.
After about 3 weeks, you can crack a nut open to see if it’s ready to eat yet. If you don’t have time and need to let them sit longer, they’ll still be good for a few months yet, so no need to rush. It’ll give you something constructive to do indoors in January when you hate the world and all of it’s icy death winds. The first year I cracked walnuts, I sat on the cold basement floor with a big rock, a hammer, and an old towel. I would set the nut on the rock, hold the towel over the top so shards didn’t go flying everywhere, and hit it with the hammer. Then I’d use my little picker thingy to pull the nut meat out. This does work, but it’s hard on your butt and takes for freaking ever.
I bought a black walnut cracker, which Nik very nicely attached to some old boards as a little table so I can use my body weight to counter the force that’s required to press down on the lever. Some people tell you to run the walnuts over with your car to crack them, but I honestly think that’s a dumb idea; not only is it unreliable, but even if it works, your tires are going to shoot nuts all over the neighborhood and probably kill a cat or something. Anyway, here’s a video clip of me cracking a nut:
Black walnuts are F*CKING DELICIOUS. The holy grail of nuts, in my opinion. These are especially tasty to me probably because of all the hard work I put into getting them, but even commercially-purchased black walnuts are crazy expensive. Now you know why!
Just yesterday I cracked a few nuts and toasted them, and made myself a big jar of black walnut extract. It has to sit for two months, but it’s a delicious addition to cakes, cookies, and the occasional iced coffee I will drink. The nuts themselves are great in baked goods or just eaten as a snack. They are super nutritious and worth every ounce of effort I put into harvesting them.
Have you ever eaten a black walnut? I might be willing to sell some of my harvest over the winter, if you ask me nicely. Or if you want to come help me crack them…
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