If you have walked in the woods this fall, you know that this has been a great year for acorns. The small brown nuts have been raining down like hail, turning parks and forests into hard hat areas, and covering the surrounding ground.
The squirrels' frenzied collecting and catching of nuts reminds us that until recently, our ancestors hereperformed a similar fall marathon to help insure their own winter survival.
Euell Gibbens, the American guru of collecting and preparing wildedibles, said that the period after the first frost but before the ground freezes is the best time to forage for items like black walnuts, butternuts, and several species of hickory nuts. These native nuts are all edible, and still to be found, in varying habitats and numbers.
Black walnuts are the most obvious of our edible wild nuts. These tall, attractive trees with near-black bark and heavy branches arenot common, says Bill Bond, county project forester with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The trees prefer growing in the deep soil near river bottoms, in groups of three or four. And since most bottomlands have been cleared for fields and homes, many of the trees are gone, Bond says.
The fruits of the black walnut, golf ball-sized spheres which thud to earth at this time of year, bear little resemblance to the tender meat pieces we bite into on ice cream. The hard, thick shells are enclosed by a tough, fleshy green husk that turns black and rots off after several weeks on the ground. Foragers look for freshly dropped nuts before insects, animals and rot can claim them. This year's crop is plentiful.
Once the fruits are collected, experts advise removing the husks by stomping on them or grinding them. Some people drive over them with their cars. The remaining hard,corrugated nuts should be left to dry several weeks in a warm, dry place. This allows the nut meat to shrink slightly so that extraction from the lobes of the shell is easier. Crack the shell by placing theseam side up and hitting it with a heavy hammer. Then, use a nut pick to pry out the meat. It takes approximately five pounds of fruit toyield one pound of meat.
This brings up an additional use that black walnuts have had -- as a dye. The husks of the nuts contain a compound that results in a deep brown dye used by both American Indians and colonists. Combined with the naturally high amounts of tannin in the plant, the dye is extremely long-lasting and may take weeks to come off the skin. Use gloves when handling the husks.
A few years ago, Bond said, a large commercial supplier of black walnuts from Missouri set up a collection station in this area. Their studies showed there were enough harvestable trees to make the shipping back to Missouri for processing worthwhile. Despite the tens of thousands of pounds of nuts turned over by amateur foragers, the project was not profitable enough and the company didn't return, he said.
With the abundance of nuts of all kinds this fall, Department of Natural Resources people are themselves currently collecting, but not for culinary reasons, Bond says. The black walnuts and acorns are being gathered for their value as seeds. Planted at the state's tree nursery, the resulting seedlings will be offered for sale to the public in coming seasons.
Nutritionally, black walnuts are very high in protein, outranking English walnuts, pork, lamb, beef, turkey and fish. They are also high in fat at 59 percent.
It is easy to see why these nuts were animportant element in the American Indian diet. Cracked black walnut shells have been found in 2,000-year-old sites around the Great Lakes.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew black walnut trees on their estates, using the nuts for everything from alcoholic beverages to pickles. And in those days, as now, walnut wood was prized for its fine, dark texture and durability. Besides furniture, it is highly valued for use in gunstocks because it seldom warps or shrinks. Today, an exceptionally fine tree may sell for $20,000.
Bond says he receives many phone calls from excited landowners requesting evaluation of their trees for lumber. Almost always they are disappointed, hesays, because good prices go for only large, high-quality trees.
If you have ever gardened in the vicinity of a black walnut tree, youmay have discovered that many parts of the trees, including the roots, contain a chemical which inhibits the growth of certain crops. Tomatoes are sensitive to this poison, called juglone, wilting and dyingwhen planted within the tree's root range. Also sensitive are apples, mums, peonies and roses. Some plants, such as hollyhocks, bee balm,snowdrops and pansies seem immune. And others, including bluegrass, raspberries and blackberries, reportedly flourish under the light shade of the black walnut.
Promoters of American trees can't understand why the native nuts, in particular the black walnut, are not used in the home landscape more often. After all, even though these long-lived trees may take years to produce nuts, their beauty as a shade tree is just as appreciable as that of maples, which never bear edible fruit. In "Nut Tree Culture in North America," Richard Jaynes says, the nut tree planter "leaves a valuable legacy behind him," not only in harvest of wood, but in valuable food sources for man and wildlife,and a better place to live.