In Praise of Black Walnut Trees

If you go for a walk in the woods any time soon, you may still encounter black walnuts or the remains of their hulls on the ground.

Fallen Black Walnuts

Fallen Black Walnuts

The nuts usually remain on the tree until after the leaves fall, reminding me of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.  Then all the nuts fall within a short time of each other.  These nuts are sweet tasting and highly nutritious.  Studies show that eating them helps prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.  Walnuts have as much protein as an equal weight of beef, but they also contain essential fatty acids that are necessary for healthy brain development and function.  Any aging brains out there?  Eat walnuts!

Black Walnut (Junglans nigra)

Black Walnut (Junglans nigra)

Mammals other than humans like them, too: squirrels, mice and voles, for example.

Eastern Gray Squirrels eat and help disperse Walnuts

Eastern Gray Squirrels eat and help disperse Walnuts

Red Squirrels also enjoy many tree nuts, including Walnuts

Red Squirrels also enjoy many tree nuts, including Walnuts

These animals aid in the spread of Walnut trees when they overlook some of the nuts they have hidden away for later use, effectively planting them.

In turn, these animals are food for larger animals, like fox

Red Fox

Red Fox

and raptors.

Red-shouldered Hawks, as well as most other raptors, hunt and eat small mammals

Red-shouldered Hawks, as well as most other raptors, hunt and eat small mammals

According to Douglas Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home, the leaves of Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) trees and the closely related Butternut (Juglans cinerea) provide food for the caterpillars of over 100 species of moths and butterflies, including Luna Moths and Banded Hairstreaks.

Banded Hairstreak on Butterflyweed. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of Black Walnut and other woody species

Banded Hairstreak on Butterflyweed. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of Black Walnut and other woody species

The Walnut Caterpillar specializes on Black Walnut and relatives such as Butternut.  This means the leaves of these trees are the only food these caterpillars can eat.

Walnut Caterpillar (Datana integerrima)

Walnut Caterpillar (Datana integerrima)

Since they are an important source of food for birds, not all caterpillars will see life as an adult butterfly or moth.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Black Walnut trees have a reputation for not playing well with other plants. That is, many plants won’t grow successfully in close proximity (within the drip-line or reach of the roots) of a Black Walnut. The reason is more complex than shade and competition for water.  Black Walnuts contain juglone, which is an anti-fungal chemical.  In order to derive nutrients from the soil, the vast majority of plants partner with underground mycorrhizal fungi (think mushroom, not the mold in your shower).  Unless the fungi on which the plant depends is resistant to juglone, or the plant doesn’t require this partnership to obtain its nutrition, that plant won’t do well.  Of course, some plants and their fungi partners have evolved in exactly this way.  Click here for some suggestions from The Mortem Arboretum for plants that can co-habit successfully with Black Walnut trees.

It’s of benefit to Black Walnut trees to produce juglone, since it does reduce competition for resources, and protects the trees from fungal invaders that might do them harm. Juglone also has sedative properties that may aid animals in dormancy. It can even have a calming effect on people.

Black walnut trees contain another compound called ellagic acid in both their nuts and leaves. This compound is thought to help prevent cancer in people who consume the nuts. The ellagic acid in the leaves is effective in removing carcinogenic hydrocarbons from the air, helping to reduce the effects of air pollution.

As if that weren’t enough, Black Walnut’s wood is valuable for furniture and cabinet making, and the nut hulls can be used to make a dye.

Black Walnut with hull partially removed

Black Walnut with hull partially removed

These are just some of the known benefits of Black Walnut trees.  Just imagine what we don’t know yet!  No wonder ‘juglans’ is sometimes translated as ‘nut of Jupiter’, or ‘nut of the gods’.

Black Walnut Tree (Juglans nigra)

Black Walnut Tree (Juglans nigra)

Resources

Beresford-Kroeger, Diana.  Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.  2003

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket. 1992.

Tallamy, Douglas W.  Bringing Nature Home.  2007

Wagner, David L.  Caterpillars of Eastern North America.  2005.

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Natural History Museum Database of Leipidoptera Hostplants

10 thoughts on “In Praise of Black Walnut Trees

  1. AWESOME !!!!!!…thank you sooo much for sharing!!!!…..lol….(had to smile when I saw the poison ivy berries in the previous post) look forward to see you again…. patti

  2. What an informative post. Black walnut! It’s Saturday night here in Pittsburgh. Resolved 2 things to do: Enjoy some walnuts with mint chip ice cream this evening (Breyers) and take a long a field guide for tree id when I next walk Petra in Frick Park (900+ acres/Pittsburgh, PA). Oh, to catch a peak at Mary Anne’s List of posts that need to be written/photographed….!

  3. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs really nice,
    keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website
    to come back in the future. Cheers

  4. I like our walnut trees. So I thought. Now the voles have taken over our yard and wondering if we got rid of the trees (or atleast a few of them) if the vole population would die. Wondering if there is a way to keep the trees from producing nuts, atleast for a year or two to get rid of the voles???? Any ideas??

    • I’m a little surprised that they would be that interested in the walnuts. I think they might prefer food that is less work. Have you seen them eating the walnuts? If the walnuts are really attracting the voles, you might just harvest the walnuts for yourselves. They are very nutritious. Many trees that produce nuts have ‘mast’ or high production years, followed by several years of lower production. So the natural cycle may help you out.

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s