Appalachia Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

One of my Favorite Trees

Black walnut tree in brasstown 2

Black Walnut trees grow throughout Appalachia and they happen to be one of my favorite trees. I love the taste of black walnuts, but that isn’t the reason they’re my favorite tree.

The dark trunk and branches of Black Walnut Trees call out to me in a way I can’t explain. The first fall Chitter noticed the trees lost their leaves she grabbed hold of my shirt and pointed saying “Momma look the trees are naked. They’re gonna freeze to death!”

When Black Walnuts go ‘naked’ in the fall of the year I don’t think  there is another tree that compares to their beauty. As their dark outlines spring up against the sky the trees takes on an old world royal appearance to my eyes. Their stately look gives the aura of being above the fray or maybe instead it’s the look of having been here so long they know all about the way of the world in an intimate manner.

Black Walnuts can grow to heights over 100 feet. Walnuts loose their leaves quickly once fall arrives, but just before they turn a vibrant yellow. The bark of the tree has deep furrows in it, the texture is part of what makes the tree as a whole take on a black look especially in late winter.

Black walnut tree in brasstown

 

The trees have predominately been valued for their nuts, but rating just as high is the value of their wood. From gun stocks to furniture the wood is still in high demand today, just as it has been in the past. Also highly valued is the brown dye that comes from the outer hull of the walnut. The dye is used to dye fabric, yarn, wood and other items.

Black Walnuts have even aided in the health of past and present generations. The juice from the nut hulls was widely used for skin aliments-most commonly ringworm and psoriasis.

As I did a little additional research on Black Walnuts I discovered some interesting tidbits about the trees.

  • Ground up walnut hulls are used to clean jet engines-and even aid in some oil well drilling applications.
  • The roots of Black Walnut trees are considered toxic-and can cause other plants growing nearby to die.
  • Juglone-the poison that occurs naturally in the roots-can also be found in other parts of the tree. Certain types of exposure to the substance can be harmful to animals and humans.
  • Sadly I discovered Black Walnuts have an enemy they don’t seem to be able to fight. Thousand Cankers Disease is attacking Black Walnut trees. A few years ago the NC Department of Agriculture issued a ban on walnut wood entering NC from certain states in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. I’m not sure if the ban has been lifted or not.

Black Walnut Trees in Appalachia

 

There are lots of Black Walnut trees around my house and along the roads I drive each day. Over the years, I’ve come to think of a few of them as friends. Crazy as it sounds, I feel like they watch with interest as I drive under them going to and fro.

They say your childhood travels with you for the rest of your life and I believe it does. It comforts me to know many of those stark, strong, regal Black Walnut Trees that line the roads of Brasstown are the same ones I used to stare out the window at when I was riding in the backseat of Pap and Granny’s car. Back in those days all I had to do was watch for my favorite trees and dream.

Tipper

 

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    colleen Holmes
    December 3, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Here in the thumb of Michigan old black walnut trees still thrive. I hope that disease doesn’t make it this far. Our ash trees have been dying by the thousands. In 1978, I gathered some nuts with permission and lay them out overnight. Lo and behold the squirrels stole every one. They also buried them throughout the yard and around our stone wall in a neat line.
    I enjoy their sweet spicy smell. They provide bushels of nuts plus shade the house. I’m surely blessed. Everyday I count my Blessings.

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    December 2, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    In our family, the favorite tree was probably the American Chestnut which our Dad helped restart in PA several decades ago. One sibling says he found a branch with several nuts hanging over the antlers of a deer head in a bar, asked for the nuts, brought them home and planted them; another sibling says he found a sapling growing in the woods, brought it home and planted it, so who knows, but anyway…
    At one point, he had the PA state record trunk circumference and drip line American Chestnut tree in PA. A storm took that tree shortly before he died, and sadly some who came after him cut down all the rest he planted because they didn’t want the burrs in the grass.
    I remember how he loved napping on a glider beneath that record-holding tree each day. Sad it’s all gone, but “To every thing, there is a season…” Eccl 3:1.
    Yep.
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    Henry Horton
    December 2, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    “They say your childhood travels with you for the rest of your life and I believe it does.”
    This very thing i have been seeing in my own and other people’s lives. The reason this part of N.C feels so much like home to me is i grew up in the Mo. Ozark’s and these mountains are like the Ozarks on steroids. Also appreciate your love of the winter beauty of bare tree branches against the Carolina Blue winter skies.
    Thanks.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 1, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    Tipper,
    and Ron…my husband told me of a Shellbark Hickory tree along a creek by a golf course he frequented. He said the nuts were the largest he had ever seen…On our place we have Shagbark hickories with those smaller nuts…
    At any rate in a few days after he told me about the tree, we made a trip to the golf course and asked the owner if we could pick up the nuts. We got a large boxful but not before other golfers had picked up a lot of them while playing…I’m not sure if these nuts would grow or not but I would be happy to send you a few to plant and see what happens. We planted a few but with all the things that happened this past year, mowing in a daze etc. we have forgotten exactly where on the fence rows they were deposited…Also, we didn’t cover them with chicken wire when planting so the squirrels may have found them. We plan on planting some more on the lower wetter area near a neighbors pond where our fence overlooks his field and pond.
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS….from what I hear around, this nut is more scarce in these parts and yes it is the size of a native black walnut.

  • Reply
    Ed
    December 1, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    In my part of Appalachia black walnuts don’t have nutmeats. Ours have goodys. We crack them with a hammer and a flatiron (if we are lucky enough to own one) held upside down between our knees. We pick the goodys out with a bobby pin, preferably not the same one someone has used to clean out their ears.
    Sometimes I wonder if I am not part of an Appalachian subculture. A subculture that those who embrace their own concept of the Appalachia are want to deny. I don’t know for a fact, I am just wondering. What if the last vestiges of the real Appalachian cultural are irretrievable? I do know for a fact that among my siblings there is no one, other than myself, that will own the ways of their parents and grandparents. They prefer to expend energy in an effort to deny their heritage rather than enjoy it. All my efforts to preserve and promote it are repulsed. I think I know what it feels like to be a dying breed.
    I do believe that you and your endeavors here are genuine. I can only pray that you will reach a remnant that is more interested in celebrating its origins than proclaiming “Look at me! Look at what I have done with the little I have been given.”

  • Reply
    Jeanie
    December 1, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    I’m glad to see that others appreciate the beauty of “naked” trees. The twists and turns of the branches are always unique. Your photos are great, also, Tipper.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 1, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Any of you all ever gather and eat Shellbark (not shagbark) hickory nuts ? They tend to grow in limestone country but in the mixed loamy soils along larger streams. The nuts are the size of black walnuts and so are the easiest hickorynut I know of to get the nutmeats out. It is another tree I’d like to have on my own place but alas, such appears unlikely…

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 1, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Tipper,
    Black walnut lovers here as well! I think it is an inborn trait of native North Carolinians. There were black walnut trees along various fence rows, along the out buildings and dirt roadways on both my grandparents farms.
    I remember as a child my grandfather Tweed and Fisher (a neighbor of my grandfather) standing under a tree planted in the corner of the yard along the circle driveway. I am sure it was Fall of the year as i had seen a bucket of walnuts on the porch. They were looking up in the tree and talking over the nut producing situation of said tree. He told Fisher that he ordered and only planted the thing there because my grandmother wanted one when they built their house. She thought the nut would be easier to crack and loved pecan pie. I remember him saying that the tree was not used to cold or growing on (native) to his high hilltop and that he would gather ten thousand bushel of black walnuts before that old tall “pee-can” would ever make a nut. He went on to laugh that mamma sure needed to like black walnut pie better than “pee-can”! “I’m a mind to cut it down,” he said.
    Of course, I begged him not to, that it might have nuts on it next year! He listened to me and didn’t cut it down, at least for a few years…Every year at Thanksgiving I always run out to that tree to see if there were nuts…Never a one! I think he was right and eventually down it came. The excuse was it was beginning to scratch the side of the house. Ha
    There was always black walnuts…and store bought bags of pecans at Christmas!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…So glad to read Don and Jim’s comments…I have native Mahonia, daffodils and forsythia growing under and around our black walnuts…and the prettiest little patch of grass that don’t take over the place…I think it is a woodland edge native grass as well.

  • Reply
    Sallie R. Swor
    December 1, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    My parents and the mailman who turned around in the gravel driveway under two walnut trees teased about who earned the hulled walnuts that the cars ran over. The front porch was a perfect place to sit and watch for the mailman as well as watch the squirrels run up and down the wooden fence. As the walnuts were hulled they were gathered and stored in a basket in the woodshed. A few weeks before the holiday baking began it was Daddy’s job to crack and pick out the nutmeats with a horseshoe nail. He and the mailman had looked forward to those holiday treats but when he went to the woodshed the basket was empty. It was then he realized why the squirrels had been so busy. I don’t remember if anything happened to those squirrels but we often had fried squirrel and thickly sliced sweet potatoes with white gravy and biscuits.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    December 1, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    They are so good–black walnut is one of my favorite ice creams. I’ve got the recipe (I think it’s yours) for black walnut pound cake & I’m gonna try it for Christmas. It’s a shame they are so hard to shell.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    December 1, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Echoing Jim’s “Br’er Don”, I also find black walnuts still thriving at mountain homesteads abandoned eighty years ago–in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Some trees still have sparse grass growing under them, likely owing to that poisoning effect on other undergrowth.
    And, like you, Tipper, I also love the stately and dignified look of the naked tree, with its dark bark and clean open branch structure, as though just pruned by the arborist. We get a long time to admire it, as the leaves drop very early and reappear late. I don’t even mind the strong smell of leaf and husk. Walnut trees are not good when overhanging house rain gutters, and don’t park under them. I once had a falling nut crack my windshield.
    Interesting that you mentioned using ground up hulls (shells, actually) to clean jet engines, Tipper. I have myself done this. Long, long ago in a place far away we used crushed walnut shells to clean jet engine turbine blades. It was easy. Very carefully toss handfuls of the granular shells into the air intake of the running engine. The shells were just coarse and hard enough to scour the (extremely expensive) fast spinning blades without damaging them. Of course, the shell residue went out with the exhaust.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    December 1, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    I love black walnuts, black walnut ice cream, and turning black walnut wood on my lathe. The wood is beautiful.

  • Reply
    Tamela
    December 1, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Lovely – and all (original blog and reader comments) beautifully and heartfelt written. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    December 1, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Tipper,
    I enjoy reading about your love for Black Walnut Trees. My daddy planted a tiny little Black Walnut just below the house in 1962. That booger was beautiful, reaching about 80 feet and I enjoyed many a walnuts from it. But a Tornado hit this Spring and down it come, along with many poplars and maples.
    One of my friends that work for Frontier Communications stopped by my shop and asked if he could have some for Gun Stocks and Fireplace Mantles and I gave him about 16 feet. I’m using the rest for firewood.
    Sometime this winter, I plan to replant a few shoots from my shop up in the holler. Who knows, maybe someday my grandkids might enjoy some like I have over the years…Ken

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    December 1, 2015 at 10:44 am

    I suppose I mention my Dad too much, so please bear with me while I continue to mention him too much. But, I realized most of what I learned in life was not in college or school, but was learned observing and listening to him. He shared your love for Black Walnut trees, and would go around on his mountain farm planting and stomping them into the ground to grow. He continued this as long as he could walk. Never once did he worry that he would not live to enjoy many of them, but instead taught us to give back to the earth instead of take. He also planted one in my back yard. The squirrels like to plant them in odd places such as next to the house, and sadly I have to kill them where he once cherished them. I continually enjoy your blog, and realize how an Appalachian heritage can actually bond people to each other through nature and like interests.
    There was once this giant Shagbark Hickory tree near our old country store. We kids loved to pick them up and shell them out. With time on our hands, we took all the time to shell these little delicious nuts. I love the old rugged bark, and still enjoy one that grows near my mailbox. My sis visited one time, and her granddaughter insisted she shell out some I had gathered. For anyone who has ever shelled these out, it would be obvious my sis was not happy but in humorous way.

  • Reply
    Peggy Lambert
    December 1, 2015 at 10:26 am

    My ancestors, the Cherokee Indians used the walnut bark to dye their basket splints, carvings and used the nut meat to cook with in some dishes. My Mom told me that when she was a young girl living on Blue Wing (Soco) section of the Reservation that the women would beat up walnut hulls to make a pulp and would dam up the creek and put this in the creek water to make the fish come to the top of the water for air, then they would pick up the fish and put them in their baskets to take home to cook and eat.
    The squirells bury them in my flower beds for the winter and the ones that come up in the spring and have leaves on them I break them off. I love the smell of the walnut.
    Peggy L.

  • Reply
    Quinn
    December 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

    I don’t often envy folks, but I am always a teeny bit envious of people who have easy access to Black Walnuts 😉 I don’t know of any trees in my area where I would feel right collecting the nuts. But after I asked a forester friend who collects several less-common species of nuts to plant in likely spots in the woods, he gave me some sacks of black walnuts in 2011. I removed the hulls to make a dyebath and returned the nuts to him for planting. One of my favorite pairs of handknit socks was made with yarn dyed with those hulls.
    (Pictures here, if anyone is interested:)
    http://comptonia.blogspot.com/2015/02/more-of-good-thing.html

  • Reply
    Eldonna Ashley
    December 1, 2015 at 9:54 am

    When I was a child a very rural country road near my grandparents had a black walnut tree that overhung the road. Some of the walnuts would fall on the road and be crushed by the tires of cars driving past. Sometimes we searched for nuts that could be salvaged.
    Imagine my delight when just a few years ago we drove on that road and the tree was still dropping nuts on the road.
    As a child I remember children coming to school with stained hands, proof they had been gathering black walnuts. I wonder if children still gather them. Do they still have stained hands or have gloves taken over?
    My mother made an “icebox” sugar cookie that included black walnuts. Once mixed, chilled, sliced, and baked they are fabulous. I have the recipe. I need to find some black walnuts and get backing.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    December 1, 2015 at 9:49 am

    My neighbor recently cut down a stately, ancient walnut. I’ve always thought it was the most beautiful tree on White Oak. While I understand it was his tree and it was his right to remove it, I can’t help feeling like I’ve lost an old friend.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 1, 2015 at 9:28 am

    At Dad and Mom’s old place there is a walnut planted by a squirrel. They had planted some walnuts down in the head of the holler and they saw a squirrel carry a nut up the hill across the driveway and bury it under a small rock sticking out of the road bank. The nut was not later eaten and it sprouted. It is now about 9 inches in diameter at 4.5 feet from the ground. I still have some nuts collected from it in October 2013.
    By the way, if youhave trouble with squirrels carrying off your hard-won hulled out walnuts, a way to both dry them and stop the squirrels is to make a cage with ‘hardware cloth’; the 1/4 inch mesh wire.
    Gee, you’ve made me want something with black walnuts !

  • Reply
    dolores
    December 1, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Great photos! I do enjoy munching black walnuts, also. A tree I have here in NC is what a neighbor called a gum tree. It has a ‘spooky’ looking bark when the leaves are gone. I especially enjoy looking at it in the fall and decorate it with a couple of ghosts at Halloween time. My question has to do with the part of the tree used for dye and, thanks, Jim, you answered it.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    December 1, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Walnut trees are strongly associated with old home places that I look for in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While they’re native, settlers encouraged them and planted walnuts around their homes. Even today, as much as 85 years since anyone has lived there, you’ll find walnuts growing – both trees which stood when folks lived there as well as younger ones.
    The juglone tends to suppress other trees from growing. Because of the suppression of other trees, you can often spot a former home place just from the relative openness of the surrounding area.
    While it definitely inhibits other trees as well as at least some garden plants (such as tomatoes) , it apparently has no impact on some other vegetation such as yellowbells (forsythia), daffodils, beauty berries, and iris – all non-natives which have also held on over the years

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    December 1, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Tipper–I too am fascinated by black walnuts, and I’ll add a few more uses and comments to your nice coverage.
    *Indians used the hulls to make a potion that disable fish and let them collect the fish to eat.
    *Stain from the hulls has long been used to dye not only cloth, as you mention, but also leather.
    *The wood is a favorite for gun stocks and in the making of fine furniture because of its density. Slow growing, the tree repays patience by being incredibly durable. In fact, Grandpa Joe, who had some along the path leading the hen house and hog pen at the last place where he lived, called them a “three generation tree.” By that he meant that whoever planted them was doing so for three generations on down the line.
    *Br’er Don has discovered that the presence of black walnuts is a prime indicator for an old home place. That’s because the trees were often grown close to houses. They not only kept weeds and other plants at bay as you mention (this was when folks swept their yards); they also kept insect numbers down.
    *For reasons I don’t fully understand, they are an “edge” tree. You’ll fine them along fence rows, pasture edges, stream banks, and other locations where there’s some opening far more frequently than in the middle of the woods.
    The tree has been good to me on a personal level. I’ve written published pieces about it, mostly dealing with personal “connections,” on at least three occasions.
    One time in England, while visiting the famed gunworks of W & C Scott, the plant director showed me a huge stump from a close cousin of the black walnut, a Circassian walnut, and asked me to guess its value. I knew it was rare and special wood so I hazarded a guess of 50,000 pound (about $100,000 U. S. at the time). He laughed and said multiply that by five and you’ll be about right. The wood was that valuable and was destined for British “best” shotguns.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    December 1, 2015 at 7:24 am

    I also love black walnut trees. There are many of them where I live, too. In the county next to us, there is an annual Black Walnut Festival. I love the nuts and the wood from the tree is very pretty.

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