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Walloping Walnut

By Audrey Stallsmith

Juglans regia

Children fill the groves with the echoes of their glee,
Gathering tawny chestnuts, and shouting when beside them
Drops the heavy fruit of the tall black walnut tree.

William Cullen Bryant, "The Third of November"

The walnut used to be one of our favorite treats at Christmas when I was young, largely because it was “an easy nut to crack” while preserving the kernels whole.  I've read that poor children used to cover walnut shells with foil to make their own holiday ornaments, and I have a bitty basket somewhere that someone carved from such a shell.

The walnut most commonly consumed is the Asian type, now often inaccurately known as the English walnut (Juglans regia), rather than our wholly American black walnut (Juglans nigra).  The latter must be considered the black sheep of the nut world, because its hull sticks like glue, will stain your hands an unlovely hue when handled, and can even cause skin irritation.  It does have a stronger flavor than the Old World type, though, along—apparently—with the American “don’t mess with me” attitude!

Despite the edibility of the walnut tree’s fruit, its juglone can be toxic to other plants growing near it.  That is the way the tree preserves its space, and space it may need, since it can reach 60 feet in height and live for three hundred years or so.

The nut apparently derives its name from regia’s origins in Asia, as “wall” or “wull” originally meant “exotic.”  Juglans may be a corruption of Jovis glans (“Jupiter’s nuts”), due to a once-held belief that the gods ate walnuts while humans had to make do with acorns. That could explain the English walnut’s royal species name as well.   Actually, humans have been consuming walnuts for at least eight thousand years and don’t seem likely to stop anytime soon.  The reference to “an orchard of nuts” in Song of Solomon 6:11 is thought to refer to the Asian walnut.

The resemblance of its kernels to human brains once gave it the reputation for healing problems originating in the head.  Although we disdain that “doctrine of signatures” these days, the last laugh may be on us, as scientists recently have proved that the consumption of walnuts does improve brain function.  That probably is attributable to the nuts’ high content of antioxidants and omega-3 acids, which may help protect against cancer and heart disease as well. 

The tree’s bark and leaves are astringent and once were used to treat skin problems as well as to dye fabric brown.  Its dark-hued wood, of course, has long been popular for the construction of paneling, furniture, gun stocks, etc.  The “blacking” in the nuts’ husks also came in handy as an ink.

I would hazard that walnuts probably have been the nuts most commonly used in holiday baking, since they used to be less expensive than pecans, though that may not always hold true these days.  And--when speaking of things as distinctive as himself!--poet Gerald Manley Hopkins referred to “the taste of ale or alum” and “the smell of walnutleaf.”


The Juglans regia image is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of