The Gatherer and Black Walnuts


Increasingly over time I have been moving towards trying to become more aware and, if possible, to integrate into my every day experience what culinary resources I naturally find at hand. Toward that end, this year I discovered huckleberries and added them to my scone repertoire. I began to teach myself what plants the Native American peoples used locally and to think about what use they might have for me in this day. I began collecting recipes for the quinces that I found growing on this property. I gathered dozens and dozens of apples from my dear friend Conny’s land, and shared my apple creations with you here. But then there were the walnuts.

The first season I saw those round green balls in the side yard I honestly didn’t have a clue what they were. I was sure they were ornamental. This thought was reinforced by the fact I have an English walnut tree in back about which there is no doubt what they are. The multitude of squirrels that traverse its branches keep me in the know. And had I not been watching them above, the shells they leave upon my picnic table and wicker patio furniture underscore and flaunt their continued (annoying) presence. The second year I was here, though, a woman with whom I am acquainted stopped to inquire if she might have some of the green round balls “for her squirrels.” I gave her not one but two bags of what by then I had learned to identify as black walnuts. I’d received a rather cursory education from my neighbors who obviously thought the black walnuts were inferior to the English walnuts which grow throughout the neighborhood, and, in addition, not worth the bother, and so I found myself simply discarding them, noticing how messy they seemed once their green hulls were punctured.

Meanwhile, however, I’ve been growing, as have we all. There is a quickening thought form among us that in order to restore the imbalance we have unconsciously wrought upon our planet we can “eat locally,” “grow our own food” and thus “reduce our carbon footprint.” All worthy tasks. So the thought that increasing my production of food from the garden, re-learning to can foods and to continue my practice of dehydrating foods was already on my radar. The way I held these activities was in the knowing that we needed to begin to reclaim our agricultural skills, as in pre-industrial, as in, before we got into this big energy mess. But more recently, most likely in my exploration of “native plants” I found myself thinking more about pre-agricultural practices, meaning the Hunter Gatherer. What would it mean to reclaim my own inner hunter-gatherer? And thus the spiraling towards collecting, harvesting and utilizing as described above. And this meant, inevitably, that I would look anew, and, at last, at the black walnuts and to go down the Black Walnut Road. Which is precisely what I did.

I engaged a dubious Antonia in this endeavor, cajoling her out into the rain one morning to “collect walnuts.” “Oh, Mom! It’s raining.” “Not that hard. Come on.” Out we went in our raingear and in short order we had literally collected over 1,000 walnuts. No kidding.

Impressive, right? I had done a bit of research prior online and was relieved to find a university giving me some guidelines, that included what to do about husk flies. For sure enough, I’d spotted some little white creatures in the husks themselves and was very glad to learn they did no harm to the nutmeat. Just wanted a place to transform into a fly. What helped me most was to find a photo of a husk fly,

who turned out to be quite cute, and having just spent a lot of time thinking and writing about butterflies, who, I reminded myself were once caterpillars, I came to peace with the husk flies in their wiggley form and opted for the advice to simply fill up the tubs with water. Goodbye wiggleys.

After a day in the rain, soaking, I knew it was important to get the husks off and to get the nuts drying. Much as I dreaded this process, I dawned surgical gloves and stripped, by hand, the husks off about 125 walnuts.

But I was wiped out. Seriously. I surveyed my collection and the enormity of the project hit me. What had I been thinking? And did I mention I’d gone through three pairs of surgical gloves, each of which had punctured and my thumb was absolutely black? And it hurt. Ouch. OK, slightly disenchanted but still willing.

In the course of the next few days I continued research online and talked to neighbors.

The flavor of black walnut lends a gourmet touch to cookies, breads, cakes and other baked goods. The nutmeats are often expensive and difficult to locate; discovering an available crop of black walnuts is a real find. ~University of Minnesota Ext. Home Page

Well, then!

The man across the street grinned and told me, enjoying every minute, “We used to sell those things as kids. We got about two dollars for a gunny sack. Pigs eat ’em.” Well, thanks.

Antonia lessened the angst of the two tubs still about 3/4 full of nuts by posting an announcement online and within a day a man showed up who took the rest away, planning, he said, to “dump them on a dirt road until they dry out and then probably run a truck over them.”

Do you see, dear readers, what I was going through?

Another person responded to Antonia’s post and informed me there was a large walnut tree in town that was not English, that shelled itself! What? Where? I drove to the location and to my utter astonishment found an English walnut tree which had been grafted to a black walnut tree, and was thus sporting not only leaves of both trees–highly distinct!–but also dropping walnuts of both varieties on the street, thus confusing passersby, such as the caller.

In spite of all the learning, which I appreciated, I remained perplexed with the amount of material still on the nuts and could not begin to fathom scraping it off-though I tried. I finally took heart when a neighbor who had gone down this road once herself reassured me I could dry them in the oven and the rest of the husk would be easy to strip off. So here’s what I did. First I brought them in the house and placed them on oilcloth to begin to dry.

Some of them are still there drying. Then I put about half of them on a big metal pan and put those in my oven at lowest temperature possible, with the door ajar. I left them in there for about two hours.

By now I was pretty much fully aware of how much work it is to harvest black walnuts and more importantly, what kind of patience the people who actually relied fully on such treasures had to have to take advantage of them. And if you have ever purchased them you might begin to understand why they are so expensive!

This afternoon I decided to see just how much work was still in front of me. I plan to let these walnuts continue to dry, either in a sunny place, or a dry place indoors or perhaps I will revert to the oven procedure again. It’s a big experiment. But looming over the known part ahead lay the unknown part: just how hard are they to crack? Everything I’d read said, “Really hard.” I knew you had to do it on cement or metal. A wooden surface is not enough. And I knew you had to use a hammer or vise. (I heard over and over that locals, indeed, drive over them with their cars!) I took a couple outside on the sidewalk and hit them with a hammer. Not that bad! The nuts inside are not yet cured–they need at least three weeks to air out even after they are removed from the shell! But I nibbled one, and a little grin emerged on my face. Yes, I think they will be worth it!

I am now imagining that I will buy an ice cream maker and make some delicious black walnut ice cream. Or maybe a black walnut cake for Christmas. It will all be worth it. Not an ounce will be taken for granted, and I will glow with the knowing I took the journey and came out on the other end. Lucky family. Lucky me.

Love and gatherer blessings,
Kathryn xoox

28 Responses to “The Gatherer and Black Walnuts”

  1. Enjoyed reading this saga and am salivating with the thought of black walnut cake.

    “I will glow with the knowing I took the journey and came out on the other end.” How about Antonia? Is she OK, what with crawling around picking up walnuts in the rain and all. I know this is just “a day in the life” for you.


  2. Holy cow Kathryn, what an undertaking! I’m sure you’ll savor every last bite of that black walnut cake and ice cream. Thanks for sharing your big adventure.


  3. Hi, Dick! Antonia and I cracked up reading your comment. She said, “She pelted my window with nuts.” It’s true. A day in the life, indeed! Love, Kathryn xoxo

  4. Holy cow, Kathlene! It certainly has been! I don’t know if I will ever do it again, but at least I did it once! Let’s see how yummy they are and I will decide! Know where to get a good ice cream maker?? Kathryn xoxo

  5. WELL DONE! Kathryn thank you for this amazing and funny story, I could actually see and hear you working…:-) This cake or icecream will taste soooo good. LOLove Tyra

  6. LOL Another inspiring undertaking, mom! Utilizing that which we have been given is very important! Cheers to your Amazing efforts! 🙂 I think you chucked walnuts at my window inviting me to “get in touch with [my] inner gatherer” actually! 😉 hehe

    Love you,

  7. Good day, Tyra! Thank you! I needed that pat on the back! 🙂 LOL! It’s been such an adventure and I’m not even through! Glad you enjoyed the story. It was pretty funny on this end for sure. 🙂 Kathryn xoxo

  8. LOL, Antonia! That’s right! It’s all coming back to me now. “Come out here and get in touch with your Inner Gatherer!” I do recall shouting at the window! 🙂 Too funny. Love you, and thanks for your help. Mom xoxo

  9. Kathryn, what a good story. Of course, here in the mid-west with no English walnut trees, we are old hands at harvesting, hulling, and cracking black walnuts. Our Indiana childhood autumns were spent trying to beat the squirrels to the nuts in the woods. We brought them home and laid them out on the garage floor to dry while Dad parked in the drive. When fully dry, Dad would drive the car over them to hull them. When hulled, near Thanksgiving, we’d gather on the back cement stoop with ballpeen hammers in hand (better for directing the point of force, try on the ends or along the shell joint) for a cracking party. Sledge hammers were also good but took out young fingers. A big, flat rock or brick also worked, but the shells were more likly to scatter like shrapnel. Mom used them in choc chip cookies or brownies or fudge, but hands down, black walnut ice cream is my favorite. The hulls also make a wonderful brown dye for natural yarns or cloth, to get that, you soak the hulls in water for awhile and then process as you would any other natural vegetable dye. I’m imagining the taste of your recovery as I write this. Enjoy, it’s well worth the work.
    Hugs, Julie

  10. Oh, Julie, I KNEW I should have called you! I had finally come to the conclusion that the modern day Gatherer must turn to YouTube for mentoring! No one around here took me seriously. There is obviously a cultural bias against them in Northern California–probably because so many English walnut trees can be found. (Am I right that English walnut trees are grafted black walnut trees? So much to learn, still!) Here’s one of the vids we found! Looked like a dying art to me!
    Thanks for your input! How wonderful you have that history! Love, Kathryn xoxo

  11. Hi Kathryn – wow, well done to you both! I think the chances of me persuading the Gnomelets to come gather nuts with me would be very slim! Amusing, but very slim!

    I love the idea of black walnut ice cream and cake – and I’m now hungry again!
    I really, really hope they’re worth all this effort ! 🙂

  12. Good morning, Liz! Funny about your gnomelets. I can imagine. I think we have to go back a couple of generations to find anyone who would support the idea. As someone wrote to me yesterday on Twitter, “It’s a dying art.” Indeed. I am thoroughly glad I am doing this and confident the result will be yummy!

  13. Get in touch with my inner gatherer”

    That is what I felt after enjoying your delightful post and thinking about it.
    Look what bounty is right before you.
    It can take some work to receive the reward.

    The process of being in the world harvesting is good for the body, the mind and the soul.

    Thank you, Kathryn


  14. Hi, Philip. I love what you took from this post. Look what bounty is right before you–and it can take some work to receive the reward. So true. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. Kathryn xoxo

  15. What a funny story! I’m in awe of your determination. I was also laughing as I remembered my ex making steak au poive. He had a bunch of peppercorns on the sidewalk and was bashing them with a hammer; elegant, no but effective, yes.

    I bet that black walnut ice cream will be great.

    By the way, if any of readers are in San Francisco and want to swap seeds with another gardener there, they should send me an email.

  16. Hi, Nicolette! And welcome! I was determined. I still am. I still have all that bashing to do. 🙂 Peppercorns on the sidewalk is funny. Thanks for the visit! Kathryn xoxo

  17. wow… good job, K!!! Loved going on the journey with you. You know, there‘s a special nutcracker for macadamia nuts (which grow prolifically here in HI), and I‘m pretty sure their shell is considered to be the hardest in the world, so with a macademia nutcracker, your walnut shelling job could be made much easier…..but in any case, there is NO DOUBT the results of your food making will be greatly enhanced by this experience. Bravo and carry on!! p.

  18. Hi, Pamela! I will look into macadamia nutcrackers! Thank you!! Love, Kathryn xoxo

  19. You really said, “Inner Gatherer”????? No…you didn’t.

    Did you?

  20. LOL! Oh, yes, I did. 🙂 In the rain. 🙂 Kathryn xoxo

  21. I just read your tale of gathering black walnuts, and it reminded me of my gathering them just last week. My friend,Katie & I had just come from a nice brunch, and we were going into her apartment, when these “things” were raining down on the cars in the parking lot. So I decided to gather some of them, and see how this would all turn out. I found out the hard way that walnut WILL stain your hands if you don’t use rubber gloves. It doesn’t wash off, no matter what you use or how hard you scrub at them, your hands will be black for a week or so.My husband came up with the idea of using our cement mixer to wash them off. It worked VERY well! ! So, they are now drying off in the basement, waiting for the next step. We moved to the country about ten years ago, and my husband used to tease me,about being a “city” girl. When we were through washing and rinsing the walnuts, he commented to me that he thought I was now officially, his country girl.

  22. Hi, Barbara, and welcome! Your story made me laugh. It must be such a universal story! And, believe it or not, I did read that cement mixers were one way to get those hulls off! Lucky you to have had one on hand!
    Enjoy! Kathryn xoxo

  23. Hi, Kathryn!

    What an ambitious undertaking! I have a cousin in Michigan who harvests BWs and she sent me a recipe for a cake that’s been in her family for many, many years. She also told me how her husband gets the husks off:

    To get the husks off, take a short piece of plastic PVC pipe, with an outside diameter just a little bigger than the average walnut. Mount the pipe vertically in a vice or something solid. Place walnut with husk on top of the pipe and hit it with a hammer. The nut will go thru the pipe, the husk will fall off.

    Black Walnut Cake
    from Bonnie G, Michigan

    1/2 cup butter
    1/2 cup shortening
    2 cups sugar
    5 eggs, separated
    1 cup buttermilk
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    2 cups flour
    1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    1 cup black walnuts, chopped
    1- 3 oz. can flake coconut

    Cream butter and shortening and gradually add sugar. Beat well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beat well after each. Combine buttermilk and soda until dissolved. Add flour to the butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk mixture. Mix after each addition. Stir in vanilla. Add 1 cup walnuts and the can of coconut. Stir well. Beat egg whites (room temperature) and cream of tartar until stiff. Fold carefully into batter. Pour into 3 9-inch well-greased pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Cool. Spread frosting between layers and frost sides and top. Press walnuts into the frosting.

    Cream Cheese Frosting
    3/4 cup butter
    1-8 oz cream cheese, softened
    6 1/2 cups powdered sugar
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

    Beat until light and fluffy.

    I don’t have access to black walnuts, so I’ve never made this cake, but it sounds wonderful. Enjoy!

  24. Dear Loma, Welcome and thank you so much for sending along the recipe which I will definitely try out! And it’s fun to hear yet another way to get those black walnuts out of their very protective shells! Kathryn xoxo

  25. OH MY!!! yay!! someone like me! I am a first time harvester of black walnuts and currently have *cough* 700 drying outside right now. I am interested to see how they work out for you. I have been reading everything I can as I got them all for free and hulled them with my stompin foot haha!

  26. Hi, Jana! So glad you found the blog! I can’t believe you STOMPED 700 black walnuts! 🙂 I wonder where you have them “outside drying”? Not Northern California where the rains have started. Hope you have them somewhere safe from the elements for at least a month! Let me know how it works out! Kathryn xoxo

  27. I came across this blog after looking for how-to -harvest black walnuts. My 88 y/o mom has a tree that is probably 100+ years. Dropping loads of walnuts over past 2 years. Today I was in her yard and it came to me that I should make use of them . So I picked about 20 unblemished or least blemished, Put them in a bag with a plan to unmask them. I planned on boiling them to soften the hull, but I discovered all i had to do was cut the hull circumferentially and peeled the hull. To get some of the residual husk off, I took a few and boiled for about 30 min then put them in a 150 degree oven for 2 hrs; have 1.5 hrs left. The water I initially boiled them in was a very deep brown. I think I’ll see if it can cover my gray.
    I am going to try Loma’s husband’s trick with the PVC pipe. Humans can be very innovative!

  28. Hi, Ellen! Timely. I was just out tossing black walnuts in the recycling bin. Really! Good luck with your process. I think you’ll find 20 will not yield too many nutmeats, but you’re on your way! Kathryn (Hahaha on the hair comment! :))

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