By Terrylynn Brant
Mohawk Seedkeeper Gardens
Black Walnuts have been a traditional foraged food source among the Haudenosaunee for centuries. Today, with food security on everyone’s mind we are seeing a renewed interest in these majestic nut trees across our territories.
Store bought walnuts are English or California Walnuts. They are grown in managed orchards and have a milder taste. They originated in Persia, growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and later developed by the Greeks. Franciscan Monks brought them to California in the 18th century.
The bolder, earthier tasting indigenous Black Walnut grows in the wild. On Six Nations they are often found around old homesteads. They are valued as food and medicine but also as a source of wood, dye and shade in the summer.
Walnuts are free for the gathering but be ready to spend time hulling, washing, curing, and cracking nuts.
This lovely deciduous tree makes great shade and grows easily with few issues. They can reach 30m. tall and 15 m. across. You can remove the central leader producing more side shoots and restricting their height.
Watering them in late summer relieves stress that delays the harvest. From September to November the leaves turn yellow and the nuts fall. They can stain your hands and the environment around them.
The pitted shell is inside a leather like covering that splits as the nut ripens. This means it is time to collect them before animals and insects start feeding on them. Small worm like insects feed on the exterior of the shell but usually don’t enter the nut.
My grandkids and I shake the branches with a pole and gather the green and brown, fallen nuts daily. If you wait too long they turn black and get a bitter rancid taste as they absorb the tannins from the husks. The hulls have phenols, a chemical compounds that can irritate and stain skin so wear gloves.
We dry the nuts in the sun. We step on them and often drive over them to remove the outside hulls. It is best to dry and hull within a few days of gathering as the hulls are soft and easier to remove. If they harden then soak in water to soften.
After hulling, clean the walnuts in a pail of water using a paddle to agitate them. Drain the black water off and repeat until the water clears. Nuts that float are unfilled and have issues like insects so let the chicken and the compost have them.
Dry covered to keep critters away for 3-4 days in the sun. Store nuts in baskets in a cool location for up to 6 months or until you can shake them and hear the nut inside. This curing time enhances their flavour.
Shell the nuts with a heavy duty nut cracker or a hammer. I cover them with a cloth to keep them from flying around when crushed. The nut meat is high in oil so it can only be stored in a fridge for 3-6 months or in the freezer for a year.
Black Walnuts contain 50% more protein than meat and have the highest protein content of any tree nut. They also have high levels of antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and many health-promoting compounds. They help reduce diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. English Walnuts are not as healthy as Black Walnuts.
Walnuts stronger flavour is retained during cooking so fewer are needed for any recipes. One kilogram of walnuts makes about one cup of nut meat. Store away from other strong odoured foods as they easily absorb odours.
Black Walnuts are a favourite fresh eating food of the Haudenosaunee and were used in a boiled drink, and to make syrup.
If you garden understand that Black Walnut trees produce a natural herbicide called juglone.
Juglone discourages growth in some plants and can reach up to 100ft from a mature tree. This helps the tree as it doesn’t have to compete for valuable nutrients and water. It is in the leaves, roots and husks so be careful when composting and where you throw any washing waters.
Anytime you see a Black Walnut grove you will inevitably see wild raspberries as they can tolerate the juglone produced by the tree. I have also seen corn and peach trees unaffected.
Medicines made from Black Walnut trees are used to treat parasitic worm infections, diphtheria, syphilis, and leukemia. Horses have developed foot ailments if they have black walnut bedding or graze too close to a grove of walnuts. The Haudenosaunee used a walnut bark tea to encourage vomiting as a purging agent, to cure hemorrhoids and athlete’s foot. It is used with caution on toothaches as it is poisonous. Parts of the leaves and nuts were used as an insecticide to keep fleas and mosquitos away. The husks were made into hair dye.
Early settlers saw walnut groves as a sign of fertile lands and became a factor in land selection. They clubbed young nut and fruit trees to start them producing. This was done on New Year’s Day. in the morning. without speaking. Today arborists say that beating a tree with a padded club or a vigorous twisting of the limbs traumatizes and shocks the tree into its normal cycle.
Enjoy the gathering of nuts as a family foraging task to improve your food security and visit us at Mohawk Seedkeeper Gardens on Six Nations or virtually on Facebook @ MohawkSeedkeeper to learn more about nut foraging.