Black Walnuts, Hickory, Butternut: Wild Bounty, Good Eating, More Lore

Go ahead, kick away those orbs of green turning black. Native black walnuts take work to reveal the treasure within. While some rake the nuts to the curb or toss them aside, those in the know will be gathering them up as a bounty of black gold. And they are not for everyone with a distinctive flavor all their own.

A black walnut in its green husk.

A black walnut in its green husk.

Shagbark hickory nuts, picked and in in the husk (shown at bottom).

Shagbark hickory nuts and one partially in the husk. (shown at bottom).

Shagbark hickory nuts this year are also plentiful. More elusive are the butternuts as many people no longer know the value of this tree and sometimes cut them down. The species is also taking a beating with diseases. Picking by hand takes time and effort but, oh, how worth it is the haul.

A butternut. Photo by Modal Jig

A butternut. Photo: Modal Jig, CC

My mother and father are gone now, but their legacy remains – part of that is they loved going “nut picking” in a station wagon loaded up with their children, containers, a cooler packed full of lunch ingredients.

Young boy with black walnuts.

The resulting memories are etched on my soul. Wearing warm hooded sweatshirts with pockets perfect for carrying nuts, then sitting on stone walls to crack open the nuts (not crush them) and patiently pick out sweet kernels contained within the shell bits. As a result, I treasure native nut trees – especially the shagbark hickory and toothsome (but tougher to crack) black walnut. Now is the time to beat resident squirrels (or other aficionadoes of the delectable wild crop) to the bounty.

An autumn outing is part adventure, hunt, and fun combined. The things discovered while out and about cannot be predicted – fresh mushrooms, hidden deer paths picked out in fallen leaves, small streams to explore, forgotten stone walls.

Officially called Juglans nigra, the eastern black walnut is a native species valued for its fruit, encased in a green husk. Packed with nutrition, according to The International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation, recent findings show tree nut consumption is associated with “better adiposity measures and cardiovascular and metabolic syndrome health risk factors” in U.S. adults.” What does that actually mean? Lower body weight. For the many other benefits to consuming nuts, see this link to nuthealth.org where you can plug in any variety you like and then read the results.

Farms often have stands of nut trees along pasture walls and property lines – trees valued for wood and timber as well as the nut crop. (Not every year is a productive one.) Some suburban homeowners view a black walnut tree as “messy” – the hard nuts will chew up a lawnmower and also shoot out like projectiles from the blades passing over them.

And a black walnut is a tough nut to crack. Really. It takes patience and practice to learn the art of a hard whack to split the shell but not crush the treasure inside. The goal is to cleave each clean in half. (Imperfect shells can be picked over by using a large opened safety pin – my mother was an expert in getting every edible shred possible to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch for those who love them – she preferred hickories.)

The process to get to the nutmeats only begins with the gathering. Time and persistence is required as the green-black covering must first dry and be removed to get to the walnut. As they naturally decay, small white grubs or worms aid the procedure. These may be unsightly, but are efficient. Be tenacious.

Good eating? You bet.

Champion black walnut tree. Photo by Chris Brunson for Moo Dog Press magazine.

Try to remove the green covering by hand and the tannin-rich husks will impart a long-lasting stain to your palms. At this point many people just chuck the whole idea; it’s not for the faint-hearted. For those who persist, the hard-shelled ebony walnut emerges. Since the moisture-rich tree embryo (that’s what a nut is after all) is fresh, more drying – and time – is necessary.

Age improves the rich distinctive taste.

A freshly fallen black walnut with green husk.

A freshly fallen black walnut with green husk.

“About 65% of the annual wild harvest comes from the U.S. state of Missouri and the largest processing plant is operated by Hammons Products in Stockton, Missouri. The black walnut nutmeats are used as an ingredient in food, particularly ice cream, while the shell is used commercially in abrasive cleaning, cosmetics, and oil well drilling and water filtration.” – Wikipedia

Hammons, a family-owned company, is the leading processor and supplier of black walnuts in the United States – and sells pure nutmeats by the pound or in the shell.

“Nuts come in as thousands of people pick up the ‘cash’ that’s now laying on the ground,” according to David Hammons, vice president of marketing, Hammons Products Company of Missouri, from a previous year’s interview.

For hulling locations and 2017 dates, see this link.

A grove of black walnuts? Treasure, indeed.

The trees do produce a substance known as juglone, which deters some plants within its drip line. For more recipes and news about native nut crops and black walnuts, visit Hammons Nut Emporium, which offers a wealth of knowledge.

Hammons Fancy Black Walnut Cake recipe

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups black walnuts
1 3-ounce can flaked coconut
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda

Cream butter and shortening. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy and sugar is dissolved. Add egg yolks and beat well. Combine soda and buttermilk: stir until soda is dissolved. Add flour to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Add vanilla, Black walnuts and coconut: stir thoroughly. Beat egg whites (at room temperature) with cream of tartar until stiff peaks form, then fold into batter. Pour batter into three greased and floured nine-inch pans. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, then remove from pans and finish cooling. Ice with cream cheese frosting. Optional, sprinkle top of cake with black walnuts. Frosting:

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 10-ounce package cream cheese, softened
6 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Toothsome black walnut cake. More Hammons recipes.

Delectable frosted black walnut cake. More recipes linked to this image.

Cream butter and cream cheese, then add sugar gradually and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla.

Revealed by those tenacious enough - kernels of delicious black walnut.

Revealed by those persistent enough – kernels of delicious black walnut.

Editor’s note: Black walnuts are also prized for “gunstocks, furniture, flooring, paddles, coffins, and a variety of other wood products. Due to its value, forestry officials often are called on to track down walnut poachers; in 2004, DNA testing was used to solve one such poaching case, involving a 55-foot tree worth US $2,500,” according to Wikipedia. A portion of this story previously appeared in 2015.

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