Various species of walnuts grow all over the world, but we’ll focus on our native North American species, the Eastern Black walnut (Juglans Nigra). Black walnut is one of the most valuable timber trees in our Appalachian forests, and it has a myriad of food, medicinal, lumber, and folkloric uses. The Black walnut has been in North America at least since the Pleistocene era, and has a long history of use as a food and medicine source for First Nations people in North America, and later, the rest of North America’s immigrants.
Because of the beautiful, rich brown color of the heartwood, Black walnut has become one of the most valuable hardwoods native to North America. Its natural resistance to decay and insect damage have helped it remain on top in the rankings of useful woods, as well as its large size. Black walnut trees range from the East Coast to the Great Plains and from Texas and Georgia, north to central Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and up to Ontario, Canada. They have a broad range, following the deep, rich, moist forest soils. It is often found in the forest with yellow poplar, white and green ash, black cherry, basswood, beech, sugar maple, red oak, hickory, elm, hackberry, and boxelder.
One of the most interesting things about Black walnuts is their poisonous nature. The tree is allelopathic, which means it releases chemicals from its roots and decaying bark and leaves that stunt other plant’s growth. Black walnuts produces Juglone, which is the allelopathic chemical that is exuded by this majestic tree. It is the tree's built in method to cut down on competition by nearby growing plants. People made note of this potent chemical as early as 77 CE and parts of the walnut have been used as herbicide, anti-fungal and anti-bacterials for centuries.
Juglans means “nut of Jupiter” in latin, and some believe it refers to Jupiter’s, well...nethers. The nut may in fact refer to the “glans of Jupiter”. This may account for the walnut's connection with fertility and love in legend. The ancient Greeks apparently stewed walnuts and ate them to increase fertility. Carrying a walnut in the shell was also believed to increase fertility, an interesting practice in comparison with our Hickory and Buckeye nut lore here in Appalachia as a charm for good luck when carried on one’s person.
The Romans ascribed more feminine aspects to the walnut and associated it with Juno, Jupiter’s wife and the Roman goddess of women and marriage. In fact, one of the Roman wedding customs was to throw walnuts at the bride and groom to encourage fertility. Sounds dangerous.
European Walnuts feature prominently in folklore and fairy tales throughout the rest of the continent, especially in Italy. There, walnut shells are often seen to be containers for magical or precious objects. They also believed that walnut branches or wood could protect one from lightning strike. It was also sometimes called, “roots of evil” due to its poisoning nature, as well as its' links it to witches in Italian folklore. It was, after all, said that witches preferred to meet under the poisonous shade of the noxious walnut tree, one of the most famous comes from the legend of the Witches of Benevento,
portami al noce di Benevento
sopra l'acqua e sopra il vento
e sopra ogni altro maltempo.
Carry me to the walnut tree of Benevento,
Above the water and above the wind,
And above all other bad weather.”
- A recitation many of the women accused of witchcraft repeated at their trials.
Though not a use of the wood, I couldn’t help but mention a lovely recipe for Nocino after mentioning the Witches of Benevento. Nocino is an Italian cordial made from green walnuts picked traditionally on St. John’s Day (June 24th). It is very easy to make and you can add other tasty herbs to it to spice it up, but the dark, nutty flavor is divine.
Perhaps in conjunction with its association with malevolent practices, falling asleep beneath a walnut tree was thought to cause madness or prophetic dreams; two paths one’s mind may take that often lead to one another. In Bulgarian folk beliefs, certain tasks must be undertaken in advance of planting a walnut tree to avoid premature death or becoming estranged from your loved one, combining the association it holds with poison and of love. Aside from its medieval associations with evil, in Europe the walnut was seen as promoting fertility, strengthening the heart and helping to dispel the evils of rheumatism.
In North America, in the Ozarks, walnuts drew lightning, and to plant a walnut tree near one’s house was seen as a terrible idea. I wonder if this has some to do with the incessant crashing of walnuts in the fall upon the roof, rather than solely a fear that this tree, above others, draws lightning to it.
Over at New World Witchery, (which is an incredible podcast and blog), Cory has done a great piece about walnut lore, and quotes Ozark Magic and Folklore to describe some folk beliefs, both magical and medicinal, about Black walnuts in the New World,
He also found in Kentucky Superstitions,
“Daniel & Lucy Thomas, in their Kentucky Superstitions, say that green walnuts can be rubbed on warts, then buried to charm the wart away.”
“Heading into Illinois, Henry Hyatt reports a mix of magical and medical uses for walnuts:
He goes into great detail about much of the lore I could repeat here, or you can go check out his post.
A few other New World tidbits include the Pennsylvania Dutch who saw the Black walnut as an indicator of good soils, assuming that limestone was rich where Black walnut grew, and would choose land with healthy stands of Walnut. Some also say that Walnuts fruit best when beaten. This may be due to the fact that using sticks to knock Walnuts out of the tree was once the main method of harvest. Black walnut was abundant then, and used for rougher applications such as split rail fences and railroad ties.
The upper Great Lakes region provides archeological evidence of Walnut consumption dating back to 2000 B.C.E. in North America. The people of the First Nation’s in Appalachia used Black walnut for a variety of things. The hulls were used to dye hides, baskets and other materials, while the nutritious nuts were eaten in a variety of ways, and the leaves, bark and hulls used for medicine. They also tapped the trees, much like maple, for their sap. Some tribes introduced the Black Walnut as an edible food to the colonists who arrived in droves, among many other important wild food plants. They also reportedly used the hulls and their potent juglone to stun fish in dammed creeks.
The Black walnut is known today as a valuable timber tree and its wood is much revered. It has traditionally been used to make furniture, cabinets, flooring and other useful interior applications, as well as gunstocks because of it does not twist after seasoning. It is excellent, and some say the best, for turning bowls for these same reasons. It also finishes very nicely and can be stained and glued easily.
The wood was also used, among other hardwoods like cherry, to make mountain dulcimers and other musical instruments. It is also excellent for sculpture and fine detail work. Black walnut was largely used in colonial times for these applications, but as mahogany gained popularity, the walnut was cut, and therefore planted out, less and less, and the Black walnut stands grew slim.
What can I make with it?
Practical: Beautiful bowls, spoons, utensils, cutting boards, gunstocks, furniture, knife hilts, boxes and pretty much everything else you can think of in fine woodworking.
Magical: Wands, stangs, and walking sticks aligned with fertility of mind and body, for love magics, for work on the poison path, for blasting rods and/or general purpose wooden magical working tools. Bowls for holding shadow materials or dark working ingredients, or those things aligned with Jupiter.
Here are two recipes from Madame Grieve for using Black Walnuts:
To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
'Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi'd: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.' - (From The Family Physician, 'by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv'd and Travell'd with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.')
The next is from a seventeenth-century household MS. Receipt Book inscribed Madam Susanna Avery, Her Book, May ye 12th, Anno Domini 1688.
To Pickel Wallnutts Green
'Let your nutts be green as not to have any shell; then run a kniting pin two ways through them; then put them into as much ordinary vinegar as will cover them, and let them stand thirty days, shifting them every too days in ffrech vinegar; then ginger and black peper of each ounce, rochambole two ounces slised, a handfull of bay leaves; put all togeather cold; then wrap up every wall nutt singly in a vine leaf, and put them in putt them into [sic] the ffolloing pickel: for 200 of walnutts take two gallans of the best whit vineager, a pint of the best mustard seed, fore ounces of horse radish, with six lemons sliced with the rin(d)s on, cloves and mace half an ounce, a stone jar, and put the pickel on them, and cork them close up; and they will be ffitt for use in three months, and keep too years.'
Berry, Joel Brian. "History of Black Walnut." History of Black Walnut. Herbal Legacy, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
"BLACK WALNUT." Black Walnut. UCC, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
"Black Walnut Gunstock Blanks and More." What Is Black Walnut Wood and What Are Its Best Uses for Projects? The Lumber Shack, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
Cunningham, Scott. Magical Herbalism. Llewellyn Publications, 1993.
Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal; the Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. New York: Dover Publications, 1971. Print.
Hopman, Ellen Evert. Tree Medicine Tree Magic. Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1991.
Pettigrove, Cedrick. The Esoteric Codex: Supernatural Legends.
Turner, Nancy Jean, and Patrick von Aderkas. "Sustained By First Nations: European Newcomers' Use Of Indigenous Plant Foods In Temperate North America." Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81.4 (2012): 295-315. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
Wilson, Lisa Anne. "The Giving Walnut." Wild Culture (2014).
To support us in our research and work, please consider donating. Every dollar helps!