September Tree of the Month- Black Walnut

If you were to drive due west from Philadelphia, no more than 20 or 30 miles, you would see a stark change in landscape on that trip. City blocks fade into geometric fields and skylines morph into forest canopies before your very eyes. In a matter of an hour, you feel transported to an entirely different societal pace, and if you’ve lived in this area for some time, just about everybody knows what I mean.   

The Pennsylvania Dutch call this part of the state their home, and if you’ve ever been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you might recall their collection of gorgeous handcrafted furniture that dates back centuries. These pieces were hewn from wood in local Pennsylvania forests, resulting in a homegrown collection of functional artistry. 

But of all the timber felled to create these pieces, there was a specific tree species that proved to be a favorite for the Pennsylvania Dutch. 

The black walnut (juglans nigra) was always a winner among the Dutchmen of the area, and it also happens to be an apt tree for us to focus on in the first month of Autumn. Prized not only for the deep, rich color of its wood, this presence of a black walnut on your property means all sorts of good things.

If you were settling land in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, you might look out for a parcel of land with a healthy black walnut tree. The first reason is the tasty nuts. This time of year, the ground is littered with hard, lime-colored shells that resemble tennis balls. These casings start dropping in August and can be harvested, left out to dry, and then cracked open to reveal the delicious inner meat. 

The flavor is unlike any other type of tree nut and has been used by people dating back to the region’s Indigenous populations. Sweet and oily, its taste is richer than that of the more popular English walnut, especially when baked. Cakes, pies, cookies, and other treats are a great way to incorporate walnuts into some delicious treats.

Black walnuts are also synonymous with renowned woodworking. The wood from this walnut tree is easily workable and close-grained, allowing carpenters to create durable cabinets, dressers, cupboards, chairs, and dining tables. Most times, as opposed to hiding the wood with paint, a coat of oil is all that is needed to make the grain pop. But with beauty comes high demand – believe it or not, tree thieves called “walnut rustlers” have been known over the years to steal trees in the dead of night. 

As if food and furniture weren’t enough of a reason to love this tree, it has also been known to act as a marker of soil fertility. Plus, Dutch folklore says that these trees attract lightning. Many stories tell of repeated walnut tree strikes, sparing nearby barns and houses from destruction. 

The black walnut is ripe with history and interesting uses, but let’s now talk about identification. A native to the Eastern, Midwestern, and Great Plains regions of the United States, this species is a pioneer invader tree to open fields, meaning it will be one of the first species to grow in barren spaces. Usually you will see a sole individual standing by itself given that it requires a good share of sunlight to thrive, but this is also because of what’s going on underground. 

The root system, which may extend some 50 feet from the trunk, excretes a natural herbicide called juglone that deters other plants from sprouting, thus allowing the black walnut to reap more of the local nutrients. As a warning to those who have gardens near these trees, keep any tomatoes, potatoes, apples, pears, berries, and landscape plants like lilacs, rhododendrons, and azaleas away! The walnut will scare away any competition that threatens its resources. 

Despite being a sort of loner when it comes to choosing its territory, this species provides excellent shade with a canopy reaching heights of 70 feet and widths of about the same. 

A few other characteristics – black walnut bark is dark brown and furrowed with ridges, an easy trait to spot during the wintertime. Its leaves are deciduous and alternate down the tree’s stem, similar to the rest of the walnut family. And like we mentioned earlier, a key giveaway is the lime colored fruit hanging above you. 

Awbury in fact has its own black walnut within its open meadow. As the season begins to shift and Awbury assumes its autumnal appearance, don’t forget to stop by and say hello!