12 September 2014
Black Walnut: Juglans nigra
The black walnut (Juglans nigra) can be hard to miss at this time of year—or to mistake for anything else. There are other regional trees with pinnate leaves that have a similar appearance but as we move toward fall, an abundance of yellowish-green “tennis balls”—the fallen fruits—covers the ground around the base of black walnut trees.
I adore black walnut’s edible nutmeat—it has a richer, more complex flavor than the supermarket variety European walnut. Nutritionally, black walnuts are dense with proteins and essential fatty acids, wonderful for heart health. But the prized meats are nestled deep inside those greenish balls, and it takes a bit of effort to tease out the nut meat.
Black walnut is one of nature’s most colorfast dyes and your hands can take on an umber tone when working with the fruit so you may want to wear gloves! The hulls are relatively easy to remove, but don’t overlook their excellent anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. When you remove them, stuff some into a jar and cover them with 100 proof alcohol to steep into a tincture that can be used against intestinal parasites and infection. Fresh green hulls are best for medicine, but once they start to oxidize and darken you can still use them for dying; simmering cotton fabric or yarn in an old pot with walnut hulls will produce a lovely, earthy brown color.
Let the walnuts cure in their shells for a month or so before you crack them ablack walnut meatsnd extract the meats. Black walnuts are notoriously stubborn, so there are actually special black walnut nutcrackers made just for the job. Or you can do with my old fashioned method... just place the nut on a solid, non-staining surface—a nice flat rock will do—and give it a good whack with a heavy hammer!
It may take some patience and persistence to coax the walnuts from their shells, but it’s worth it... nothing says “autumn” like a scrumptious warm apple crisp smothered in black walnut topping!