“Native American Indians enjoyed the pleasures and health benefits of the black walnut well before European explorers arrived. The upper Great Lakes region provides archeological evidence of walnut consumption dating back to 2000 BC.”
— Joel Berry
We started this garden season with enthusiasm. We dug up the raised beds, fertilized, aerated and have (so far) not had to use pesticides. We moved the bed that was nearest the black walnut tree further away because it had fared poorly there last year. The rains came, tomatoes, spinach and cucumbers sprang into glorious bushiness and the squash blossoms are as big as lilies. The terra cotta pots housing the herbs couldn’t be lovelier.
We wrote recently about how in gardening each year we learned something we didn’t know. Did you know that black walnut roots grow, spread, creep, encroach, expanding into more and more ground, reaching further and further and further? Perhaps we exaggerate but we walked out the other morning to find our once thriving bed of heirloom tomatoes looking poorly in contrast to the rest of the beds and our heirloom tomatoes are in the bed nearest the … black walnut tree!
“That bed grew our best crop last year!” Marcia shrieked.
It’s called allelopathy which according to one website means, the release of chemicals that destroy certain plants that are nearby. The definition specifically mentions black walnut trees.
There are many black walnut trees on our property. Grass and weeds grow under them just fine and some vegetables are not bothered by juglone, the name of the offending substance. Corn is okay, as well as onions, some beans and beets. Maybe next year we will get it right.
The mother black walnut tree is gorgeous. She sits off our back deck and she is magnificent. There is a swing hanging from one of her stoutest limbs that generations of children have enjoyed. The rope hangs from a rather high branch and gives the swinger the sensation of flying. Standing under the tree and gazing up into the complex canopy of leaves against blue sky is a Mother Nature art show extraordinaire.
Black walnut trees are used to make expensive furniture, flooring, gun stocks, coffins, and fine cabinets and the value of a walnut tree can be high, depending on the quality of the tree. Walnut tree products are used in paints, cosmetics, oil sealant for drilling oil wells, insulation for rocket nose cones, dynamite fillers, dental cleaners and folk healing remedies.
There is a black walnut tree in the front yard of Marcia’s childhood home. She remembers her grandparents piling the walnuts in a huge pile and then driving the car over them to loosen the hulls. They were then left to dry before being cracked open on the sidewalk with a hammer and shelled. Their earthy taste was wonderful by itself and even better in homemade poundcake. Gordon remembers sitting with a hammer near a large rock on his grandparent’s farm and cracking the delicious nuts for his grandmother. His creative grandmother, Eulalia Pugh Ray, author of “Eulalia’s Poems and Songs,” had her own special recipe for black walnut cookies.
Our pet goat, Elsa, loves black walnut leaves. She also loves poison ivy and anything with thorns and isn’t a reliable food critic. This morning we enjoyed watching a squirrel crack the hard shell of a black walnut in a nearby tree. It is an unusual sound, like short bursts of squeaky hinges.
Despite our differences with them, black walnut trees have earned their place in our hearts. Right now we just wish they got along better with heirloom tomatoes!
— Gordon Mercer is past president and on the Board of Trustees of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a published author and columnist.