Now that fall is here for most of the Midwest and the gardening is starting to slow down for most of us, it is time to look elsewhere for food resources. One of the most overlooked resources in my opinion is the black walnut (Juglans nigra). I have never foraged for walnuts until this year, but there is a reason that the animals love them and why you should too!
As children, I am sure that many can remember seeing the little green golf ball sized walnut casings littered underneath trees, in the street, and on the sidewalks. You may have picked one up or stepped on it and had it stain your hands or the bottom of your shoes a dark brown color. For a majority of my childhood, I thought that black walnuts were not good to eat and only for the squirrels because of their strong smell.
One of my relatives has a giant black walnut tree growing in her backyard. She recalls it sprouting up when she first bought the house many decades ago. Each year the tree drops a ridiculous amount of black walnuts and the squirrels go crazy for them, though there is also a decent amount of red acorns in the area too, which they also appreciate.
Despite the abundance, my family has hardly utilized any of the walnuts for food or food products. The only use that I can recall anyone using them for was for throwing at cars that drove by a busy street or parked in a nearby gas station parking lot. although, this behavior isn’t exactly something to be proud of, I can say that as a kid I also took part in the same act of vandalism a time or two… what else was a kid supposed to do in a time before smart phones and frequent access to the internet?
Beyond my previous acts of delinquency, I would like to restress how cool it is to have such an interesting, versatile, and useful tree scattered across most streets in various towns within the Midwest and the Eastern portion of the United States. In this blog I will tell you where you can find black walnuts, how/when you can harvest them, how to process the walnuts, all that you can do with the walnuts, the nutrition, and medicinal uses/research of the black walnut.
Lastly, before continuing on with the blog I must warn you to take caution with consumption if you have any history with food allergies. Black walnuts are NOT worth going to the emergency room over or heaven forbid, dying over. Be smart and use your own best judgement or that of a mentor/instructor when trying wild or foraged foods.
1. Where Can You Find Black Walnuts
As I mentioned in the introduction, black walnut trees are native to the Eastern portion of the United States and into some parts of the Midwest and South. They are a deciduous tree (trees that shed their leaves after completing their reproductive cycle in autumn) and are often planted by both people and forgetful squirrels. The trees can be found in parts of Canada, Florida, Kansas, and into parts of both Texas and Georgia.
Within those state lines you will often find black walnut trees around parks, houses, as well as riparian zones. Riparian zones are the land that surrounds the edges of rivers, streams, or creeks. Riparian zones are where you would naturally find them.
2. How to Harvest Them
After properly identifying a black walnut tree you will begin to see walnuts fall between September and into October. Black walnut trees produce different amounts of nuts every couple years or as to prevent over predation of their walnuts/offspring from insects and other animals. These years are referred to as masting periods. The walnuts will be covered in a green outer husk that requires you to crush them with your shoes or feet. Do note that within the outer husk there is a brown tannin liquid that will stain your hands and clothes so do use shoes you aren’t worried about getting dirty.
After removing the husk all that should be left is the main shell and the black goop that covers it. Don’t be alarmed if you find a few ants or maggot looking insects behind the outer husk, the walnut meat is usually well protected from insect damage due to the strong shell. DO NOT COMPOST THE WALNUT HUSKS as they are known to have a natural plant toxin juglone in them and can harm certain plants. Once you are to this point you can begin putting them in your basket or bucket. I find that you can feel the weight of good walnuts versus bad walnuts as bad walnuts are a bit lighter.
3. How to Process Them
After taking your walnuts home, now is time for further processing. First, start by placing your walnuts with the black goop on the shells in an empty bucket or tub. Then use a hose to spray the goop off of the shells and clean the walnuts. Once the bucket begins to fill with water, you will begin to see the bad walnuts float to the top of the bucket. These walnuts are the ones that most likely did not develop fully before falling from the tree.
This process of spraying and rinsing to get the goop off of the shells may take a few cycles as to fully remove the gunk off of the shell.
After this process you can now let your walnuts dry in the shells. This can usually be done in a shady area with good ventilation/air movement and protection from the sun, rain, or other animals that might eat your walnuts. Many people will stick them in their basement in front of a fan laid out in buckets or in a single layer for 2-3 weeks.
After the walnuts have dried you should be able to store them in their shells or unshelled at room temperature in a cool dark place or in the fridge within air tight containers for up to 3 months or more depending on how they seem to store. Others have mentioned that some nuts may go rancid in the shells with this method of storing. A few people I have listened to or read about regarding foraging for black walnuts have mentioned that the best way of preserving black walnuts for long term storage is to remove the shell of the dry walnuts and store the walnut meat in the freezer within an air tight container. Supposedly, the walnuts will last up to a year in the freezer, though other less reputable sources claim that they last “indefinitely” when stored this way.
4. What You Can do With Them
The black walnut tree seems to have a decent amount of uses that have been used for ages. Many people use the outer layer/husk to make ink as it makes a dark brown ink/stain. The walnut itself can be eaten as is or baked into other dishes and desserts. Some people add them to ice cream and as toppings to baked sweet potatoes, salads, and many other savory dishes.
One recipe that seemed to stand out to me was black walnut butter, which can be used like peanut butter. I hope to try it this fall if I harvested enough. I have one 5 gallon bucket full of them so far and we will see how much meat I collect afterwards. Based on what I have observed from other content creators, the more, the merrier as there is little nut meat within each nut. This is why walnuts are so expensive in the store; it is due to their cost in labor rather than a shortage of materials.
According to a Healthline article written by Aline Petre titled, Black Walnuts: A Nutritious Nut Reviewed, black walnuts are highly nutritious. Petre asserts this when she writes, “Black walnuts are 75% higher in protein than English walnuts, which provide 4 grams of protein per 1-ounce (28-gram) serving. Protein is a nutrient that positively affects weight loss, blood sugar control, and feelings of fullness.
They’re low in carbs, and most of the carbs come from fiber, a nutrient that may also promote feelings of fullness and weight control…They also provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. ALA is an essential fat, meaning that your body can’t produce it, so you need it from your diet”.
After reading her article, I felt as if I possessed one of the best foods on the planet, though I am sure that my initial thoughts are far from true. From what I have been able to research, it seems be worth all the effort to get these walnuts after all. The walnuts can give us essential nutrients and fats that keep us going when times are tough. For something that falls freely from the trees, I feel that you would be a fool not to stash a few buckets worth of walnuts in your freezer annually.
6. Medicinal Uses of The Black Walnut
In Petre’s previously mentioned Healthline article, she mentions how alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) has been linked to various health benefits in regards to lower risk of heart disease and stroke. She also talks of how walnuts are full of antioxidants which help protect cells. The walnuts also contain a compound called juglone, which has been shown to potentially reduce tumor growth and kill cancerous cells responsible for various types of cancer in concentrated forms.
There is a lot of research going on in regards to the health benefits of the black walnut, which seems to be the case for a lot of wild foods. Petre’s article has sources to all of her citations to the potential medicinal research being done with compounds from the black walnut. Look into her article if you are curious.
For most of my life, I spent my days completely ignoring the nutritious gifts known as black walnuts. I always assumed that the flavor of the walnut meat was similar to the peppercorn like smell that I despise from the external husk. As far as I know now, that is not the case.
Squirrels and other animals are smart for understanding the true value of the black walnut and taking advantage of the various food sources made available to us prior to the cold, long winter months that lie ahead. Many of those reading this blog are sure to know a few places where they could potentially find a black walnut tree and the versatility of the nutmeat is only limited to your own creativity.
I think it would be foolish to overlook such a great resource due to lack of energy or commitment. As long as walnuts keep falling every fall and I am able bodied I will continue to take advantage of the wild foods gifted to us. Each year it seems that more and more research is done and we see that all of these foods that people once relied on to survive contain active compounds or ingredients that help keep us healthy and cancer free. The activity of foraging and processing also keeps our cardiovascular health and mobility up as we age, which also helps correlate to having a better overall quality of life.
We all know the saying, “nothing good ever comes easy” so don’t waste these opportunities to go explore and try something new, make a few mistakes, and some memories. It is fun to go out with friends and/or family and experience nature’s gifts together as these are the times you will remember most!
Thank you for reading; I hope you learned something new!
Petre, Alina. “Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Benefits, Supplements, and Safety.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 29 Mar. 2019, www.healthline.com/nutrition/black-walnut#benefits.