A new perspective on black walnuts: mess or meal?


That is how my buddy Steve Saffier, director of the Audubon At Home Program for Audubon Pennsylvania, describes his experience with this year's avalanche of a black walnut crop. Thousands of the baseball-sized green fruits have been dropping this summer/fall season, delighting deer, squirrels, rodents, birds and insects that crack them open and eat them or pick at them when cars run over them.

These green piles make the rest of us - if you'll pardon the expression - nuts. Ever step on one of those babies?

So Steve sent me a little riff on black walnuts yesterday. I wanted to share some of the highlights and his commentary.

First the pluses. The nuts contain valuable antioxidants, protein and healthy fats. They're pesticide-free and delicious. And collecting them is fun, helps kids outdoors and engaged.

But, and this is a big but, preparing the harvest is something else entirely, and here's where Steve and I diverge. He's perfectly willing to go through the ordeal - yes, it is an ordeal - and I'm not. He says you have to select large fruits from the ground, ones that are mottled with black specks or blotches and yield to thumb pressure. Then put on some rubber gloves and tap the nut with a hammer. 

"This is where most people encountedr a deal breaker," Steve writes. "In many of the fruits you will find the larva of the walnut husk fly eating away at the walnut flesh. The 'worms' are harmless and they do not penetrate the nut itself ... they also don't penetrate the rubber gloves and can otherwise be ignored."

I feel so much better!

Rinse nuts with a strong hose. Let dry. Protect them during this phase or squirrels will plunder. Once dried, the nuts can be cracked open with that trusty hammer. Inside, the nut has a lot of partitians and the pieces will be small. Have at it. You can eat the nuts raw or roast in an oven. They'll substitute for English walnuts any day.

Whew. This is a project for another day.

But Steve tells the story for a reason, namely that there are "wild edibles" all around us, there for the picking - as long as you're not on someone else's property or in a municipal park. Steve's email about the black walnut - which  most gardeners associate with the chemical it releases, preventing some plants from growing nearby - was very timely. I'm heading out tomorrow with a "wild edibles" expert for a story on perennial fruits and vegetables that home gardeners can enjoy.

So are black walnuts a mess or a meal? asks Steve, who used to view his black walnut tree as a curse - until he ate one of the nuts.

Me? I'm not there yet. Definitely mess.

Please note Steve's photo of nuts harvested from two black walnut trees in a single day. Steve reports that even after this picking, the trees remained laden with fruit.