Much to my relief, autumn has arrived! The leaves are slowly turning from their late summer dark greens to various shades of red, yellow, orange, brown, and even purple. The temperature is growing cooler – cool enough for jeans and sweatshirts and campfires. And multiple types of nut–bearing trees are providing natural, delicious (and free) snacks. In Appalachia, the most common of these nuts available to many of us is the black walnut.
Although they are common and easy to find, black walnuts require a true dedication to harvest. However, those patient enough to find, hull, and crack walnuts are in for a true delicacy few of us will ever enjoy without paying a high price.
Finding Black Walnuts
The Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is found throughout most of the continental United States. It typically fruits (produces nuts) during September and October. Eager harvesters will find walnut trees along roadsides, on farms, and in the forest. If October has arrived and you still haven’t found a reliable source, I highly recommend Craigslist. Last year, I found an ad offering all of the walnuts I could transport. I filled multiple large trash cans completely free of charge. *** My three–year–old son actually helped collect the walnuts (or as he called them – wile nuts) and found it to be a fantastic time. Not only did he enjoy collecting the walnuts (still in their hulls, of course), he also enjoyed spending some outdoor time with his dad! ***
Hulling Black Walnuts
The meat of a walnut is found within several layers that must be removed. The first layer, and therefore the first to be removed, is the hull – the thick green coating around the shell (the hull will eventually blacken after falling from the tree – this doesn’t affect the nuts inside, but does add more mess to the already messy process.)
I prefer to remove the hulls immediately after collecting black walnuts. Perhaps the easiest (or less tedious) way is to simply spread your harvest of walnuts onto a gravel driveway or road, then drive over them, allowing your car’s tires to tear the hulls away from the shell. As of my last harvest though, I didn’t have a gravel driveway or road that was convenient for this process. Instead of the driveway technique, I decided to manually remove the shells from the hulls.
I used 2” X 4” dimensional lumber to build a small “walnut–hulling device.” This device is visible in the picture of the hulled walnuts. I simply drilled a 1 1/8” hole into the upper 2X4 then hammered each walnut through the hole, tearing the majority of the hull away from the shell. Many of the hulls were completely removed while others needed minimal tearing with my gloved hands. Did I mention gloves yet? You must have gloves! Walnuts stain everything: clothes, hands, tools, skin, everything! If you don’t have gloves, you will eventually have what I call the “hands of death” – brownish yellow hands that look as if you’ve been dead for a week or two. Even with thick rubber gloves, my hands still stained around my thumbs and fingers.
Drying Black Walnuts
After removing the hulls from your black walnuts, you need to allow the shells to dry for a month or more. If it is possible, it’s best to leave the walnuts outside (preferably exposed to wind but shielded from rain and snow) to dry. But be cautious, lots of critters like walnuts and will steal your harvest if it’s not protected. I actually left mine on a trailer with a metal–grated floor. I kept it inside of my garage most of the time but also dragged it onto my driveway as often as I could. This allowed them to dry while also preventing squirrels from stealing any of my precious bounty.
Shelling Black Walnuts
Had I been so inclined, I could have started shelling my walnuts as early as January. In fact, I wish I would have done so. By January, I’m looking for any excuse I can find to get outside of the house, and shelling walnuts would have been a great way to spend a few cold January evenings. Instead, I waited until the following summer. The work is tedious and would have been more enjoyable if I weren’t sweating from the July heat.
To shell the walnuts, I recommend finding a sturdy and solid object (a stone, a brick without holes, a cinder block, etc.) and a selection of hammers. I experimented with small trim hammers as well as larger framing hammers.
Place the hulled and dried walnut shell on the solid object and hammer away. Start with easy hammering and increase your force until the shell cracks. The hammering process is as much of an art as it is a science. After shelling a few walnuts, you’ll develop your own unique style for extracting the meat from the shards of shells. Be prepared though, no matter how you hammer or how you dig the meat from the shell, this is a damn tedious process. There are no shortcuts. It simply requires time and patience.
Enjoying Black Walnuts
I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t eat any walnuts until I finished shelling for the day. Had I not made such a commitment, I probably would have eaten the whole of my bounty as I hammered and extracted the walnut meat. Instead, I diligently shelled the nuts, placed them into a bag, and enjoyed a handful after every shelling session. After a few of these sessions, I had completely filled two quart bags with ready–to–eat walnuts.
Per my dad’s recommendation, I sprinkled the walnuts onto a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Good call, dad! It was delicious. But I am also prone to eat them straight from the bag. Creamy, flavorful, and crunchy! Black walnuts are a phenomenal treat… to those willing to make the effort.
Walnut hulls and shells have a wide variety of uses. Although I’ve yet to do so, I’m certain that walnut hulls can be used for stains, dyes, tanning, insecticide, and types of herbicides.
Have you harvested black walnuts or are you going to this season? Do you have any recommendations or better ideas for harvesting? Or have you ever used walnuts to make stains, dyes, or any other uses? If so, I’d love to hear about it!