Walnuts, along with other nuts, are great to have on hand in the kitchen, and they are filled with nutrients essential to a healthy diet. Some of the most frequent way I use walnuts are chopped into a salad or pasta, or pair with apricots, goat cheese, honey and thyme for an amazing hor d’oeuvre. Luckily, its walnut season in Sonoma County, and now is the time to harvest and forage!
I live on the cusp of one of the historical districts in Santa Rosa, and its streets are lined with huge walnut trees. The trees grow fast when young, and reach a mature height of 40-80 feet. I found an article from a neighboring county dated May 1911, detailing the town’s streetside walnut planting project. They provide great summer shade, and are deciduous and lose their leaves in the fall. They can be messy, though, when its time to drop their fruit. They also attract crows, whom love the nuts, which partially explains why there is a constant population of well-fed and highly annoying crows in Santa Rosa. If you don’t know how to identify walnut trees yet, just look down. The sidewalks are littered with both old shells and new fruit.
Walnuts have been cultivated for millennia, and grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 2000 BC. Today, there are two main types of walnuts: English and Black Walnuts. The Greeks discovered the Persian Walnut and cultivated it to produce what we know as the English Walnut. These are the most common type to find in the store if sold in the shell, and the type you are eating if you have walnut halves. English Walnuts can be identified by 5-7 wide oval leaflets, and smooth grey bark. The nuts come in velvety green husks, which split open as they become ripe. Often the nut will fall from the fruit, and you just have to gather up the whole shells, or sometimes the husk and the nut will fall to the ground together. They are relatively easy to crack open with a hammer or a nut cracker, and will split open to reveal 2 walnut halves.
Black Walnuts are native to North America. Archaeological evidence shows us that native people were consuming walnuts as long ago as 2000 BC. In addition to a food source, they also used the staining juice from the husk’s as a dye. Walnut hardwood also comes from this variety of walnut. Black Walnuts can be identified by deeply grooved dark, almost black, bark. Its leaves have 15-20 narrow leaflets. Black Walnuts are smaller and more round, and ridiculously hard to crack open. The shell grows intertwined with the fruit, making it very difficult to remove the nut meat. Black Walnuts have a stronger flavor and some say they have a higher nutrient level than the English variety.
Because of the difficulties Black Walnuts provide, English Walnuts are the most common type to have for kitchen use. If foraging, locate a tree based off its leaves. Almost always, English Walnuts have been grafted onto Black Walnut rootstock. The English variety produces a more desirable fruit, but they are more susceptible to Walnut Blight and have a weaker root system. Black Walnuts, being native, are more resilient, so trees that are planted will be grafted. Depending on how well the tree is maintained, you often find black walnut branches come from below the graft.
In my yard, I have a very small English Walnut tree. It is in a random location, and because it is not grafted, I’m assuming it was not planted but sprouted naturally from a nut that got carried and forgotten about by a crow. Despite its size, I did get a small basket worth of nuts from it. To harvest, you can either wait for the nuts to fall from the tree and collect off the ground, or you can knock them off with a stick, and then collect off the ground. If you are foraging, just walk around town and collect off the sidewalk and the gutter. Going after a windy day is the most productive. Bonus points if you can get your husband to go with you. Keep reminding him “its free food” if you meet resistance. If you see a tree in someone’s yard, don’t be afraid to knock on their door and ask if you can collect the nuts. Most people will be greatful, as many see them as a nuisance.
Remove as much of the husk as possible, and then set in the sun to “cure” for about a week. Then, you can either store whole or spend the evening cracking and removing the meat. If you do remove the meat, I recommend storing in the freezer, as nut oils go rancid very quickly. Whenever working with green walnut husks, regardless of English or Black variety, be conscious of your surfaces and consider wearing gloves. The juice stains like crazy. If you are getting married in a few days and didn’t plan on painting your nails, take my advice and just don’t touch walnuts. Seriously, or you will have to get a dark color on your nails to hide the stains. Trust me.