Black Walnuts and Butternut

by Green Deane

in Edible Raw, Grain/Nuts/Seeds, Plants, Recipes, Trees/Shrubs

Juglans nigra and butternut, too!

Black Walnut, Juglans nigra

I didn’t see my first Black Walnut tree until about 16 years ago. It so happened that the two places I lived the longest, Maine and Florida, are on both ends of the tree’s range. I lived a little north of the range and half a state south of the range.

However, I visited Alexandria, Virginia for an extended time and one day while jogging along a park trail there was a walnut tree covered with green mana. I went back later that same day and carried home all that I could carry (and did so for several weeks.) Then came the hard work. Walnuts are delicious, but they don’t give up easily.

The walnut most people buy are actually Juglans regia, (JEW-glanz  REE-jee-uh) or “royal walnut.” They are also called English walnuts because English merchants popularized that particular nut, which is grown in the Balkans. You can find it from Greece to southwest China.  The North American walnut, which is smaller and tougher to crack, is the Juglans nigra (JEW-glanz NYE-gruh), the Black Walnut.

Written references to the walnut are some 4,000 years old. About 1795 BC, Hammurabi mentioned them in a code of laws governing food. The Greeks were the first to systematically improve the species they got from Persia. The walnut is in Greek mythology in the story of Carya.

The god Dionysus (Dennis the Menace) fell in love with her. When she died, he changed her into a walnut tree. The goddess Artemis (Dianah) told Carya’s father the news and he ordered a temple be built in her memory. Its columns, sculpted from wood, were in the shape of young women. They were called catyatides, or nymphs of the walnut tree. Three famous stone  Catyatides (and one cement substitute) are still standing at the Acropolis in Athens.  Carya, incidentally, is the genus for hickories and pecans.

From Greece walnuts went to Rome around 100 BC and from Rome to Spain and France. When they got to England is a bit of a debate, from 400 AD to the 1400’s but the Old English name for walnut also started around 400 AD.  The common walnut came to North America via the Spanish in California in the 1800’s. California leads the nation and the world in walnut production. Some 99% of the commercially purchased walnuts in the United States come from California, and 65%, almost two thirds of the walnuts consumed in the rest of the world come from California. The common walnut, J. regis,  lives to about 60 and grow, on average, to 60 feet.

Black Walnut

The American native, the Black walnut, J. nigra grows from New England west to Minnesota south to the Gulf of Mexico and across northern Florida. It can grow to 60 feet and can live past 100 years. Black Walnut trees are more valued for their wood than their walnuts. However the walnuts are used in baking, ice cream, and candy. The walnuts can be shelled into large pieces if soaked overnight in water. The nutmeat is crunchy and spicy.

A favorite of my family was the Butternut or White walnut, J. cinerea. (JEW-glanz sin-EER-ee-uh.) It’s closely related to the black walnut and has oval-shaped nuts, with a thick shell with white kernels. The best flavored of the walnuts, it was prized in my family for homemade butternut ice cream. It was one of my mother’s joys in life. There was a butternut orchard nearby. The nuts are sticky, hull easily, and in three segments. And delicious. J. cinerea can grow to 100 feet  and live around 75 years and is the most cold tolerant of the walnuts.  Like black walnut trees, the roots of the Butternut tree release a phytotoxin that keeps many other plants from growing near it.

The Black Walnut is the most common walnut among foragers. They’re shaped like basketballs two inches in diameter and are usually ready for harvest in late summer or early fall.  Try to get the nuts off the tree if possible, and good ones on the ground. Remove the husk and let the nut dry which “cures” it. After curing they can be stored shelled or unshelled. Two pounds of walnuts off the tree will produce about a cup of nutmeat.

To process them, first do with the walnuts what you do with acorns. Put them in water and discard any that float. Kernel quality can be ruined by insects; darker than usual husks may be evidence of insect damage. The water test gets rid of most but not all of the bad nuts. (Check those floating walnuts for edible grubs.)

Hulling walnuts is dirty, difficult work. A dye from the husk can stains your hands, clothes, tools and work surfaces. If the nuts are dry you can pound the hull side to side with a hammer. You can also use a cement mixer with three parts nuts to one part water plus a handful of gravel. Actually driving over them is dangerous in that the pressure can cause the nuts to pop out and hurt someone. Lastly, you can get a walnut sheller. After hulling, wash the unshelled nuts. Don’t compost the hulls because walnut hulls can suppress the grows of other plants. Tomatoes and apples, for example, won’t grow near walnuts.

After removing the husks walnuts have to be cured. Curing lets the walnut develop flavor. Stack the clean hulled nuts in shallow layers,  put in a cool, dry, ventilated area out of sunlight for two weeks. A nut is cured when the kernel breaks crispy with a sharp snap. If you don’t cure them correctly they will mold. Store at 60F or less.  Ideal humidity is 70%

When you’re ready to shell the walnuts, put them into hot tap water and soak for a day. Next day put them in hot tap water again for about two hours. Then shell. In a sealed jar in the refrigerator nutmeats can stay good for up to nine months, two years if frozen.


As for the scientific name Juglans… Carl Linnaeus, who thought up naming plants and who was the main man at doing so until he died, had a dirty mind. He was an R-rated professor. Many of the names he picked were not only risque — perhaps he was running out of ideas — but one wonders how he came up with some of them.  Amorphophallus titanum and Capparis cynophallophora come to mind.

Amorphophallus titanum means large shapeless penis — which seems a contradiction in terms.  Cynophallo… means  “dog penis.” So the plant’s name, Capparis cynophallophora, means “dog-penis bearing caper.” And while I am no expert on dog anatomy I have seen the latter plant and I have no idea what Linnaeus was thinking. Which brings me back to Juglans.

Linnaeus made up “Juglans” from “Jove’s glans”  meaning the end of Jove’s penis. Having collected a lot of walnuts I would have thought “Jugorchis” would have been more accurate (Jove’s testicle.)  And who said plants aren’t sexy?

Some food authors, who know little about language, say Juglans means “Jupiter’s acorn” which it does but that is still referring to the same part of the male anatomy for the acorn was named, or vice versa. Then they soft pedal and say Juglans really means “a nut fit for Jupiter.” Frankly, their ain’t no polite way around it and be accurate.  Linnaeus was the original dirty old man. As for the other parts of their name. Nigra is easy: That means black. Regia royal, and Cinera means “ash-colored.”  We still see those words in “regal” and  “cinder.”

The word “walnut” is G-rated and comes from the Old English phrase “wealh nutu” which means “foreign nut.” Variations of “wealh” are with us today as in Welsh” and the name ” Vlach.”   In fact, in some parts of England walnuts are still called Welchnuts. The walnut was foreign to the English of yore because it came to them via the Romans from what is today France. When Latin was still the language of the educated, and “walnut” has not been adopted,  it was called nux Gallica meaning  “Gallic nut” or French nut.

Lastly, the most unusual use of walnut oil: The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming fluid. I like it on salads.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile



A large tree with compound leaves, alternately arranged on the branches. Each leaf has 15-23 leaflets; the terminal leaf is often missing; leaf surface is dull with a slightly hairy or downy texture on the underside.


Late summer, fall. Husk changes from solid green to yellowish green. Press the hull of the walnut with your thumb; ripe nuts will show an indentation. Monitor over a six week period as nuts will mature over that time. Try to harvest off tree than the ground.


Moist, well drained soil, along streams, in mixed forests.


Harvest, hull, dry (cure) nuts at least two weeks, soak before shelling. Nuts are cured when the are crispy and snap when broken. Use as regular walnuts. For another application see recipe below.


Walnut Liquor

25 dehusked green walnuts, about the size of home-grown apricots

3 cloves

1 stick cinnamon

peel of 1 lemon (yellow part only; no white pith)

1 quart of vodka, 100 proof

3 cups sugar

1⁄4 liter of cheap sparkling wine (alternative recipe)

1. Soak the walnuts overnight to draw out any worms and other impurities.

2. Quarter them and put them into a large jar with all other ingredients.

3. Place in a sunny spot, sealed, for at least 40 days; 2 months is better.

4. Shake every few days.

5. Strain and bottle the liquid. Let it sit for another month or two,

minimum. At that point it’s drinkable, but if you can, put a few bottles

away to age. After two or three years it really becomes something special.


Some make a second, less potent liqueur by adding 2 cups

of alcohol, a cup of sugar, and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine to the

solids you filter out of the mix. Let that mixture stand another couple of

months, shaking occasionally.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mozartghost September 27, 2012 at 16:46

Why is it better to get the ones off of the tree than the fully ripe ones on the ground? I just had a chance to clear out a public lot of its black walnuts that were on the ground… I could have got some off the tree too, but I thought they had to fall off to be ripe.


2 Green Deane September 27, 2012 at 21:55

Ripe ones on the tree are fine, if you can tell the ripe ones.


3 Ruth Hafer September 28, 2013 at 20:55

I am having a bumper crop of butternuts this year. In years past, my parents let someone pick them up and they in turn sold them to a nursery for planting. We haven’t done this for a few years though. If this tree is becoming endangered why is it so hard to get someone to take/buy these nuts? My tree is 60 yrs old with no disease.


4 Scott September 30, 2013 at 19:47

I have looked all over West Virginia and only found 3 butternut trees they are hard to find, but I have found lots of big hickory nuts this year


5 Mary Elaine Lozosky October 1, 2013 at 19:18

I am interested in purchasing butternuts if you are selling.


6 Diane October 2, 2013 at 13:32

I have lots of butternuts. I would be glad to share. They are already on the ground.


7 Steve October 12, 2013 at 20:54

I would love to purchase unshelled butternuts if you still have some. I used to pick them as a child but no longer live in butternut range. They are hard to crack but a delight to eat. Please send an email if you would be willing to ship some at my expense.


8 bob December 13, 2014 at 18:01

I have plenty of butternuts ready to sell but I can’t find why buyers if your interested email me back

9 Nathan December 16, 2013 at 15:18

I would absolutely LOVE to get my hands on some butternuts. I have been looking all over for them and they are almost impossible to find. If you are selling, I am interested in buying.


10 Mark November 6, 2013 at 17:05

I have a lot of butternuts that I am willing to sell and ship at buyers expense. Contact me at


11 Karen Butler December 21, 2013 at 17:08

Looking to buy about 2lbs. of butternuts. Do you have any for purchase?


12 Winona Slaughter May 19, 2014 at 22:17

I have 14 dozen in the husk and shell. It takes 3 dozen to get 6 onces
of shelled nut meats and also takes about an hour to shell that many. I would sell them for $30. for 3 dozen. in the shell and hask or $10. an ounce for shelled nuts.


13 Winona Slaughter May 6, 2014 at 21:35

I have some. Are you interested and how many?


14 Gizell Larson May 29, 2014 at 17:57

Buy shelled Butternuts, shelled Black Walnuts and Shelled Hickory nuts for $10.00/lb . Shipping not included
Grown and harvested in Wisconsin. Just bought a bag of each. Fantastic.


15 Colin Halyk June 3, 2014 at 09:51

I have a butternut tree that a friend recently identified for me – it gave a few nuts for the first time in the 5 years we’ve lived here last year. Is there any way to help or encourage it to have nuts again? We think it is an older tree, and it was damaged in it’s youth by having to grow through a rope tied around it.


16 Lorrin Pickens August 8, 2014 at 22:31

I have a very large butternut tree in my yard and have been giving away several saplings every year. I have about 7 or 8 right now that I advertised on Craigs List and the Parkersburg, WV Bulletin Board, and am giving away. I already gave 8 saplings to one lady about 3 weeks ago and she has a large piece of land in Ritchie County where she planted them. I would love to see them go to someone in WV that would plant and take good care of them. And I would give some of the butternuts to anyone that wants them.


17 luke September 7, 2014 at 16:12

I’ve read about medicinal uses of the black walnut tincture. So i made up a BW tincture last year using 100 proof vodka. Had a friend of mine that got an abscessed tooth that was loose and his cheek was swollen and he was in much pain. He wiggled the tooth to show me and begged me to pull it with some pliers, but I just could not do it. So I convinced him to swish the full strenght tincure in his mouth a few times and spit it out . He did, and lord love a duck out came whitish puss and other matter and after three swish’s my old friend was not in pain, still swollen but the pain was gone and three days later his tooth was not moving and swelling gone . For months we laught about , but it worked.I read the indians would chew the bark for teeth remedies, and from what I’ve read about it on the internet , I was blown away. My friend was an adult , so small children could be at risk with this tincture. Anyway, that same tree is loaded with walnuts this year, so I’m gonna visit that sexy tree with a G rated intent.


18 Andre November 28, 2014 at 19:13

“Vlach” can also refer to an ethnic group. That was how the Romanians were known for most of the middle and modern ages. And just like you said, it has old Germanic roots and it means a foreigner, probably one speaking a language based on latin.


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