COLUMN: Harvesting black walnuts

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     I can’t walk by a green husked walnut lying on the ground without stooping down to pick one up. I love the scent of freshly fallen walnuts and smile as my mind replays childhood memories. When I was young I was taught to harvest what was in season. We used what we could from the land that gives us so much. I was taught fall is a time of plenty, of preparations for what is to come, and a time to be thankful. Black walnuts are one of the many natural bounties we harvested and enjoyed.

     Black walnut trees are easy to spot in autumn as their leaflets quickly turn yellow and drop – revealing a naked tree with the green husked walnuts stubbornly clinging to its branches. It’s wise to watch where you walk when entering an area with walnut trees or you could be in for a rude awakening. Nuts hurtle to the earth here and there as they separate their connection from the twig or branch.

     Once on the ground, the green walnut husk will quickly turn brown and then black as it degrades and loosens its hold on the nut shell hidden inside. We collected them in all stages, filling five gallon buckets to take home and process. I don’t recall if we wore gloves, but it is wise, as walnut husks have a very high tannin content that can, as the husks turn black, stain your hands for days. Walnuts have been used in the past for dying clothing, baskets, and conditioning traps.

     At home we spread the nuts in our driveway and ran over them with our car tires to de-husk them. I would not recommend doing this if you have a cement driveway unless you want a strange colored pattern to it. I have read several articles where people use  a piece of plywood or a board with a 1 5/8 inch diameter hole cut in it and then place the walnut husk on it and hit it with a hammer to force the nut through – shearing off the husk. I have not tried that method.  Still others in Midwestern locations use old hand crank corn-hulling machines.

     When the husk was off we washed the nut shells to clean them. Some people place the nuts in a bucket of water – any nuts that float are empty or no good. Nuts that sink are good. After the nuts were cleaned we laid them in a dry location on old newspapers to dry for several weeks. Then we stored the dried unshelled nuts in a cool dry location for up to a year. Burlap sacks, mesh bags, buckets, or baskets work great for storage.

     Black walnut shells are extremely hard to crack. Some people use a vise to hold them and a large hammer to crack them open.

A good rock with a dip or indentation in it will hold the walnut and a hammer will do the trick too.

     It is wise to cover the nut shell before hitting it to prevent shell pieces from flying everywhere.

     After nutmeats have dried for a day or two, they should be stored in a tightly sealed container either in the refrigerator or the freezer. Black walnuts have a much stronger and concentrated taste than the English walnuts you purchase at the grocery store. Some people experience a tingling or strange puckering sensation in their mouths after eating black walnuts due to the astringent tannins in the nut. To decrease this unpleasant effect, simply soak the walnut pieces in water for 2-4 hours and rinse well before using them in a recipe or dehydrating them for storage. As with any other food, anyone allergic to black walnuts should not eat or handle them.

     For many gatherers, they are worth the effort and are one of the treasured fall traditions or experiences everyone should have at least once in their life.

     Note: Walnut buds, leaves, stems, nut hulls, and roots contain juglone, a naturally occurring chemical released by the plant to hinder the growth of competing plants. Hulls or leaves should not be used as mulch or placed on or near plants that are sensitive to juglone. Don’t discard water used in cleaning walnuts near juglone-sensitive plants. For a pdf of juglone sensitive and tolerant plants. go to



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