September 24, 2003

Walnut: Nut of the Gods ~ Part One

Somebody once said that the best kind of wood to cut for your wood stove was whatever you've got. We've got tulip poplar; and we've got walnut. We've got lots of walnut, and this year, they're bearing a bumper crop of nuts. Yesterday I watched a little red squirrel hoist one up the maple off the front porch, its silhouette at first puzzling, looking like a hydrocephalic rat on a limb... the nut was three times the size of the head, which I couldn't see for the round, green nut. I understand that the oaks haven't done much in the way of acorns this year, so walnuts will have to take over for our squirrels. We might include some walnut in our diet again this year, too, for that matter.

The nuts, husks and all, fall from three trees that arch over the road down by the barn. The couple of vehicles that come down the road each day run over the nuts that have fallen on the gravel road the night before and dehusk and even break a few of them. And so at first light, I'll stand at the window with a cup of coffee and watch the crows, clever fellows, picking the meats out of shells way harder than they could crack, even with their impressive black bills. The nuts are falling in the yard by the road, too, and every year when I think of fall, it's associated at least once when I almost fall because my foot's come down on a perfectly round hidden walnut underfoot on the slope where I'm mowing the grass under one of the trees. One or more of these trees probably should come out; they're shading the garden, and although the closest is maybe 25 feet or more away, the roots and leaves of walnuts produce juglone that is toxic to many plants and stunts or prevents their growth. The stuff is so toxic that crushed walnut shells were used (among other plants, including our very abundant Poke Sallat) to stun fish.

Walnut is a close relative of butternut and pecan, and all of these nut trees can be useful for dyes used in coloring yarn and also in basket-making to create a brown or gray color. Walnuts will color the hands of a picker as well. Once we lived near some "less fortunate" folk who supplemented their welfare check by collecting, shelling, and selling walnuts. One of the little gals knocked on our door. She'd called first, said she was bringing us something. A while later, there was a knock on the door. I was stunned: the child's arms were a sickly gray-black, fingertips to elbows. This was the first time I'd seen just what a powerful stain comes out of those husks. So, we'll be wearing rubber gloves during the harvest this year.

Juglans nigra or Juglans regia is the scientific name in the US and Europe, respectively. Regia, of course, denotes royalty, and the genus, Juglans, is a contraction of Jovis glans, meaning regal nut of Jupiter. It was believed that only the gods ate walnuts, while us common sorts ate chestnuts and acorns. Interesting to note in the following a possible connection between nuts and manhood:

Walnuts were thrown to Roman wedding guests by the groom to bring good health, to ward off disease and increase fertility. Young boys eagerly scrambled for the tossed walnuts, as the groom's gesture indicated his passage into manhood. In Rome, the walnut was thought to enhance fertility, yet in Romania, a bride would place one roasted walnut in her bodice for every year she wished to remain childless. During the Middle Ages, Europeans believed walnuts would ward off fevers, witchcraft, epileptic fits, the evil eye, and even lightning. The Chinese believe crickets to be a creature of good omen, and would often carry musically-trained crickets in walnut shells covered with intricately-carved patterns.

Well, I've way passed the average blogger attention span with this little woodsy tale, but only half finished, so you'll just have to hold your horses, folks, to see how this Uncle Remus story comes out. Meanwhile, I got to get me one of those cricket thingies. Wonder if I could train the little critter to sing "When You Wish Upon a Star"?

Posted by fred1st at September 24, 2003 05:21 AM | TrackBack

Good tag at the end. I admit to thinking I was about to be regaled with a woodcutting, woodburning story, though I should have known better, since we ain't there yet.

Posted by: trish at September 24, 2003 07:59 AM

Average? Fred, your readers are above average. :)

Oh, by the way, ditch the cricket. Go for a bluebird on your shoulder. A bit messier but much prettier.

Posted by: Jim at September 24, 2003 09:37 AM

Sweet. Brings back memories of Autumn evenings in Gran's warm comfy kitchen...the Philco tuned to her favorite shows...a huge burlap sack of unshelled walnuts from the monster in the corner of the back garden at our feet...cracking and picking the meats for the seasonal/holiday goodies to come.

Posted by: feste at September 25, 2003 01:56 PM

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