Want to listen to this long thing instead of reading it?
Cool. I recorded it like a podcast.
Here we go.
Welcome to the very first installment of “Rooted Stories: an exploration of mythology and science”
Don’t know if we’re sticking with that name, but hey, it works for now.
The idea is this:
When you look up information about plants, you get one of two things: the science or the folklore. Or if they happen to populate the same piece of work, they are split into sections. I believe folklore and science are intertwined, inspire each other. There is a reason we have stories and medicines and folklore about plants.
Now I’m terrible at plants. My partner jokes that I’m ‘plant illiterate,’ yet I have this dream to start a forest farm on my Grandpa’s old land. I need to learn about the plants that are growing there, and what better way than to tell their stories?
Let’s talk a little bit about stories.
Humans throughout time have learned through stories. Before we figured out how to write and the spread of literacy, knowledge was passed down via story. Poems were memorized that told how to cure someone of a particular malady, songs were sung of heroes of old.
In our modern times, we still use the story to teach. Yes, even science. The theory of gravity isn’t just plopped into students’ laps in school. We are told the story of Newton getting walloped by an apple. Because of that story, we remember the theory of gravity.
For all you researchers out there, don’t dig too deep into my sources or methods. While I can verify to my heart’s content the scientific studies for each plant I dive into, I can’t do the same for the stories and folklore.
Folklore is necessarily an oral tradition, and that means it changes each time it’s told depending on the listener. The Brothers Grimm are the most famous pair who took on the project to record folk stories, but even they tailored their writing to their audience (aristocratic Germans).
This means that you’ll hear a lot of stories and folklore, but I’m not going to go into detail on the source. Stories spread faster than the common flu, and tracing an origin is nay impossible.
So deal with it, sit back, relax, and enjoy the story.
Today we’re talking about black walnuts.
Black walnuts – those annoying things you twist your ankles on in the Fall, stain your fingers brown when you try and pick them up, give up, then head to the grocery store and buy a big ol’ bag of them. Perfect for salads, nut bread, toasted in granola: the walnut is pervasive in our modern day culture.
And in our ancient culture too…
Walnuts probably historically originated somewhere in Persia (modern-day Iran) and were all over Europe. Then the Ice Age hit and wiped ’em out. They stayed strong in Persia, and once the ice melted nature, human movement, trade, and conquest slowly introduced the trees back into greater Europe.
The earliest written record of walnuts is from 2,000 BCE in Mesopotamia, talking about walnut groves in the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. The Chaldean, or the people who ruled Babylonia, totally bragged about their awesome walnut groves on a clay tablet.
While walnuts were always revered, it was probably the Greeks who first cultivated walnuts and used them for their oil and as a dye. The Greeks had their own type of walnut, but when they found Persia’s far superior nut, they began to cultivate that tree instead. More than likely they learned how to cultivate and process from the Persians and didn’t invent it themselves. We just have more evidence from the Greeks in general.
After that Europe went crazy for the walnut, especially France. They were so sought after that peasants could even pay their tithes in walnuts in the Medieval era. It makes sense: walnuts can be used for so many things! Dyeing, eating, oils, milk, and even flour to make a gross yet protein-rich bread during hard times.
Walnut trees produce an overabundance of nuts, so much so that’s is totally overwhelming. What to do with all those unripe green husked walnuts?
Well, Italians figured out how to make Nocino, a dark brown liquor made from green unripe walnuts that either haven’t fallen yet or are about to fall from the tree.
Most families or villages have their own special recipe for making the booze, but at its core, it is green unripe walnuts, sugar, clear alcohol (like vodka or Everclear), and spices. The spices are what makes each recipe unique. A lot add a bit of lemon or orange zest, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves.
Nowadays nocino is great as an after-dinner liquor, delicious over ice cream, mixed with coffee, or specialty cocktails. In the Medieval ages, Italian monasteries used nocino as a medicine…and an alcoholic treat of course…
So, walnuts go back a long long way.
Best known type of walnut is the English walnut, which funnily enough wasn’t even growing in England until maybe the 1800s. The English walnut is the Persian walnut we’ve mostly been talking about. They were introduced by Franciscan monks around 1769 to California and now the majority of this type of walnut is produced there.
But we’re talking about juglans nigra, native to the eastern United States growing mostly along the Mississippi watershed. The black walnut was brought to Europe in probably the seventeenth century because it grows so much better in cold climates and has darker wood than the English walnut.
There is evidence that Native Americans were enjoying walnuts as far back as 2,000 BCE, the same time walnuts were hanging out in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Colonists in the 16th century tried to grow English walnuts in the original 13 colonies but they totally failed. Black Walnut trees were native there and are the only kind that grows in the Eastern US now.
So where did the walnut get the name walnut?
Let’s start with the botanical name first.
Juglans means “acorn of Jupiter” in Latin.
Or if you go with the Romans, “nux julandes,” means the “nut of Jupiter.”
Ok, so who is this Jupiter god?
Jupiter was the most mighty of all gods in Rome of thunder, lightning and storms, the father of all the gods. Some Romans coins depict an eagle holding a thunderbolt, you might have seen them in museums or in books. That was Jupiter. He’s basically an appropriated Zeus.
So juglans, or the walnut, was as seriously important tree and nut. It was the nut of the most important god ever. It gave the most powerful god strength. No wonder it was so highly traded that is spread all across Europe.
A bit confusedly, Romans also associated the walnut with Jove, the goddess of fertility and wife of Jupiter. For this, there were traditions of women carrying around walnuts to promote fertility, and wedding guests throwing walnuts at the bride and groom to…help them make more babies?
There is speculation that myths of fertility came from well…the shape of the nut, as it somewhat resembles the scrotal area. Hence, the “nuts of Jupiter.”
Now there is modern science that you can find that supports this story. Walnuts are high in omega-3s, which promote the sperm count. Viola, fertility.
In a total 180, there are also myths and folklore in Eastern Europe saying just the opposite. If a woman carries walnuts around in her bodice, each walnut signifies a year in which she’ll be infertile.
So, want babies? Have some people chuck walnuts at you.
Don’t want babies? Pick up those walnuts and stuff them in your bra.
This is why I love mythology.
The English word for the tree, “walnut,” probably (more than likely most definitely) comes from German: “walnuss” or “welsche nuss.”
Growing and identification
Ok, back to black walnuts.
The walnut tree grows in riparian zones. Riparian comes from the Latin word “ripa,” which means riverbank. There you go. Walnuts like areas close to water, which is why they are native to the Mississippi watershed. Their canopy is typically 40 or so feet wide.
They have a tap root that goes deep into the ground, making them sturdy and allowing them to grow as tall as 125 feet. Romans would bury a gold coin beneath a walnut as an offering to Jove, showing thanks to the goddess and wonder at such a strong and fruitful tree.
In Italian folklore, walnuts have another name: “The Roots of Evil.”
Let’s say you meet a witch walking down the street one day, and she starts to follow you. Dang it. You gotta shake her! She’ll be sure to lay a curse on you! Just catch her while she’s sitting down, place a walnut in her lap and boom! She’s now rooted to the spot.
Walnuts have deep tap roots- they are dang hard to knock over. You’d want that type of tree in your corner when you’re trying to pin down a witch, wouldn’t you!
Whoa, ready for some vocab?
The leaves are compound. This means there are multiple leaflets (little mini leaves) connected on the rachis (the little stem holding them all together) coming off a single petiole (where the leaf is connected to the branch).
The Black Walnut is generally an even-pinnate. A pinnate is when the leaflets are directly across from each other, and an even-pinnate just means there is an even number of leaflets. An odd-pinnate has an end leaflet.
The leaflets are narrow and toothed. Think a jagged mountaintop- little sharp ridges go along the entire outside of the leaflets.
This was my learning moment for walnut trees: I thought the leaflets I was finding was the entire leaf. NOPE! An entire leaf of a black walnut can be anywhere from one to two feet long, from petiole to the top leaflet pair.
The bark on the black walnut is dark and deeply furrowed. I like to think that the walnut tree is always brooding deep deep thought. An important distinction between the black walnut and the butternut (or white walnut) is that the ridges of the black walnut aren’t shiny.
Walnuts prefer well-drained soil rich in limestone, which is really good soil for growing a ton of other stuff. This is why back in the colonial area settlers would find plots of land with walnuts because they knew the ground was healthy and strong for cultivation.
Now, if you know much about walnuts you’re probably thinking what??? These settlers were idiots, don’t they know anything about the toxicity of walnuts?
Well, what a perfect segue.
Let’s talk about allelopathy.
In American Hoodoo (a traditional African American spirituality with roots in West Africa), walnuts and its leaves are used to fall out of love with someone. By boiling the nuts and leaves in water then bathing yourself in it you can expel an old lover or love that you don’t want to feel anymore.
In the folklore of the Creek Tribe, the “walnut cracker’ spends his days cracking walnuts. After he died his spirit kept cracking walnuts. Those suffering from illness would hear the crack of the nut and it would shock the sickness out of them. It’s like shouting “BOO” to someone who has hiccups- scare it out of them!
These stories, myths, and spiritual practices come from the toxicity of the walnut tree. The walnut tree is an expeller, or allelopathic.
Yeah, Jupiter’s nuts are toxic.
Black walnuts, in particular, are the most toxic in the juglans species. The roots, and to a lesser extent the leaves, produce a toxin called juglone. Juglone stops most other plants from growing around it, which is why when there are walnut trees there isn’t much else.
There are myths that if you fall asleep under a walnut you’ll go mad (or just die), or horses get ill if they venture too close, even flies don’t fly underneath the walnut tree branches.
Other trees, like the English walnut, hickories, pecan, sugar maple, sycamore: they all produce toxins but nothing like the black walnut.
The first reaction you might have is “Oh crap, welp can’t grow anything else around it.”
You’d be wrong.
Walnut trees don’t produce desert wastelands.
Their toxicity depends on their age and the season. Young walnut trees (ages 0 to 10) don’t produce any juglone. When they start to age their juglone output slowly increases.
Plants such as alfalfa, ryes, and fescue happily thrive under young black walnut trees. Alternatively, planting black alder, black locust, or Russian olive trees can even help the walnut tree produce more nuts, as those helper plants work to produce more nitrogen in the soil.
Once the trees start aging there are other marketable plants you can interplant around the trees getting on in their years. Currant, elderberry, mulberry, pawpaw, and persimmon can all grow by black walnut and are juglone tolerant. The biggest factor in this stage is canopy cover and light.
Their young adult years (15-30) is also when walnut trees start really kicking up the nut production…kind of similar to humans in a certain sense…
Getting on past 30 years the juglone toxicity is much higher, as is the nut production. With such a big canopy and high toxicity, only a few plants will grow underneath that a forest farmer could sell: ginseng and mushrooms as a couple examples. When they are older walnut trees can also be tapped for syrup! Walnut syrup! The syrup of Jupiter’s nuts…ok stop it, Anna…
Really the lesson here is that though the black walnut tree is allelopathic, ie toxic, it doesn’t mean nothing else can grow around it. It just means only certain things can grow.
And hey, just keep burying gold coins underneath the trees as an offering to the goddess Jove (Jupiter’s wife) and those nuts will keep coming.
Now comes the fun part- what can we do with the black walnut tree?
We’ve already talked about all the things you make to eat from the walnuts: milk, nut bread, a protein option for your diet, Italian booze…
Walnut oil can also be extracted from the nut which is super high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and has great anti-oxidant qualities.
Now, what about the other parts of the walnut tree?
The most common use of the tree is its wood.
As a hardwood, carpenters have sought walnut for centuries, nay, millennia. It is fine-grained, dense, shock-resistant and polishes smooth. The wood has been used to make guitars, lutes, violins, cabinet, furniture, and gun stocks.
Walnut burls are also highly prized.
Wait, what’s a burl?
Burls are those weird lumpy growths on the sides of trees. Trees produce burls under stress, such as injury, virus, or fungal infection. Much like a pimple (sorry, couldn’t think of a better analogy), the hormones are disrupted and the tree can’t grow normally.
When sliced open, burls are colorful lumps and swirls and can be really quite beautiful. Fun fact: you can sometimes slice a burl off a tree without harming the tree (like popping a pimple?).
Husks and shells
Walnuts are famously hard to crack with a super strong husk and shell. Throughout history, people have hidden things inside walnuts to keep them safe. Think of Thumbelina, the famous tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a tiny woman who has a walnut shell cradle as a baby.
In ancient Brittany, there is a tale of a good-hearted brother being gifted a walnut that contained a wasp with a diamond stinger that stung a giant until is passed out.
With such a protective quality, what else can these husks and shells offer us?
If you’re from the eastern United States and picked up a brown walnut in the fall, you probably noticed that your fingertips came off dark brown. Yes, walnuts have been used as body paint for probably ever.
Walnut husks, from green to brown, have been used to dye cloth for centuries upon centuries. The color fixes so well to cloth that you don’t even need a mordant to get the color to stick. Side note: mordant is an inorganic oxide that fixes the dye to fabric. Without mordant, all the colors in your clothes would just wash out. Walnut husk is so damn strong it doesn’t need mordant to stain the heck out whatever you’re wearing or dying. So, walnut picker beware.
On to medicinal uses!
Before I start talking about medicinal uses I need to say I’m not a doctor.
Ok, that out of the way…
Remember how walnuts expel with their toxins? Yup, that shows up in their medicinal properties.
Internally walnuts have helped with sore throats as a gargle, internal ulcers, inflammation, hoarseness, tonsillitis, as a laxative, and if you make it really strong it’ll make you vomit.
The B vitamins in the bark and leaves are close to the phenols in the human skin. A phenol is any compound with a hydroxyl group linked directly to a benzene ring…I have no idea what that means…
The B vitamins can supposedly help with eczema, herpes, shingles, acne, boils, tumors, to name a few. It can also help thicken hair.
Apparently, the Vitamin E in the walnut is kind of strange and can help protect you from heart problems.
Remember that myth that if you fall asleep by a walnut tree you might go mad, or just die? Well, there’s another historical use for walnuts (and it’s being studied now in modern medicine). Walnuts are high in melatonin and Vitamin E which helps the nervous system functions properly. This could be why there are tales of walnuts curing madness.
There’s a story from Georgia, a country on the eastern side of the Black Sea, tells of a wise man who wondered why the nut didn’t grow to the size of melons or pumpkins. See- pumpkins and melons get bigger as they age! Why don’t walnuts?!?
Well, the “wise” man fell asleep under the tree and walnut fell on his head. Having a eureka moment he thanked nature for being so smart. If that nut had grown like melons and pumpkins do, it would have killed him! Phew! Clearly, walnut trees are super wise and help with madness.
So, what have we learned?
From the nut of Jupiter to fertility to madness to witches to birth control, walnuts have quite the colored history.
Black walnuts are native to the Eastern United States, mostly along the Mississippi watershed.
They produce a toxin called juglone that most people think makes it impossible to grow anything around them, but no! You can grow a myriad of plants, you just have to choose the right ones.
For centuries humans have been quite creative in using the whole walnut tree. We figured out how to make guitars, extract oil, dye our fingers forever brown, and make nutritious milk.
The Black Walnut tree is truly magnificent.
The next installment of Rooted Stories will be the elderberry!
Farming the Woods by Ken Mudge & Steve Gabriel
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart
Wild Culture – http://www.wildculture.com/article/giving-walnut/1399
Vegetarians in Paradise- http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch411.html
The Druids Garden – https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/tag/black-walnut-folklore/
Mark’s Fruit Crops- http://www.fruit-crops.com/walnuts-juglans-spp/
Hunski Hardwoods – https://hunskihardwoods.com/walnut-wood-varieties-and-usage/
Sacred Texts- http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ftb/ftb16.htm