Now I know that in order to appear legitimate, I should tell you all how to identify Juglans nigra, but it almost seems useless to do so. Seeing as how ubiquitous this tree is in its native range, and how ubiquitous it has become outside of its native range, telling you how to identify a Black Walnut would be akin to telling you how to identify a squirrel. There are thousands of online guides that teach people tree identification. If you cannot ID this tree, go to one of these websites and come back here for the stuff beyond the usual.
Where I live, Traverse City Michigan, these trees are planted on every single street. While that may not seem very interesting, I am often interested in back stories of plants that are heavily planted outside of their native range. As it turns out, before you could go down to your local Walmart and buy corn syrup flavored everything for 98 cents, there was a common consensus that our yards should have food producing trees in them. Hence Traverse City having an extremely robust population of Black Walnuts, even though they are not "native" to this patch of dirt. While I am indeed a fan of grocery stores, I am more a fan of eating local food that requires zero inputs to have a good crop. Often while driving around town in the fall, and seeing yards full of nuts that no one is going to eat except the squirrels, my mind wanders back to a time when people would have collected these amazing nuts and probably shot every squirrel trying to steal them. The robustness of our ancestors is so very awe inspiring to me.
Squirrel hunting aside, Black Walnuts would not have laid around in peoples yards a hundred years ago. Nobody back then would have regarded this food as in inconvenience to deal with. Far from whining about the fact that the husks stain things, people would be seen extolling the virtues of their amazing ability to stain things. Trappers would be looking to find husks to boil their traps in to mask the traps human odor. Medicine makers would have been busy tincturing and powdering the husks for their anti-parasitic and medicinal properties. Wool workers would be dyeing wool brown with these husks. And people all over would be seen carrying the characteristic stained hands of fall as most folks would have had some contact with these wonderfully staining husks.
The era that we live in now could be considered a time of great fortune and privilege by some accounts. We have the great fortune to whine to our neighbors about trees that would have one hundred years ago been a great blessing. Make no mistake about it folks, it is a blessing to be able to ignore something so life sustaining. In hunter-gatherer times, a bad walnut year could have meant starvation for those that depended upon them for food. All of this is to say essentially that we have a gem hidden right before our eyes, and we often ignore it.
A gem is no exaggeration either, as a quick glance at the nutritional profile of Black Walnut will show you just how much of a powerhouse this food really is. One ounce of Black Walnuts contains:
- 16.5 grams fat
- 6.7 grams protein
- 2.8 grams carbohydrates
- 1.9 grams fiber
- .4 mg or 19% daily value copper
- 1.1 mg or 55% DV Manganese
- 56.3 mg or 14% DV Magnesium
- 144 mg or 14% DV Potassium
- .2 mg or 8% DV Vitamin B-6
- 4.8 mcg or 7% DV Selenium
- .9 mg or 6% DV Zinc
- .9 mg or 5% DV Iron
This is all very impressive to say the least, but lets not forget the fact that all walnuts (genus Juglans) contain substantial amounts of ALA or Alpha linoleic acid. This is an Omega 3 fat that is essential for brain and heart health. Now before you go jumping for joy, remember that ALA is a precursor to DHA and EPA but the conversion rate is extremely low, often as low as 1%. (source) Either way you look at it, getting some of this essential fatty acid into the body is an important part of every diet, so even eating little amounts of it are important. Especially for children and their growing brains.
Any coverage on nuts would not be complete without at least a nod to phytic acid. Phytic acid or phytate is a plant substance that impairs the absorption of minerals like calcium, zinc and iron from the digestive tract. So if you do not first deal with the phytic acid present in Black Walnuts then you will receive almost none of the aforementioned benefits. So how do we deal with Phytate? This may seem like a daunting task, and it may scare you away, but it should not because people have been eating nuts for a very long time and we are the evidence that it did not in fact kill them.
The most simple way to avoid eating excesses of phytate in the diet is to avoid all raw nuts. Yes, you read that correctly. Despite current fads advocating for the consumption of raw nuts, all evidence shows us that consuming raw nuts can be a real health hazard. Too much phytic acid has been linked to dental health slowly falling apart, no matter how much you use that brush. So the simple answer for most of us is just to roast the nuts before you eat them. Roasting very effectively rids the nuts of excess phytates and it is also a way that has historical roots. Humans have been eating roasted nuts for as long as we've been human.
The other method for banishing the phytic acid that is very popular, but lacking in historical practice, is to soak the nuts for a period of 6-24 hours. This method is used to get the nuts to sprout slightly, thus lowering their plants defenses, in this case being the phytic acid. This method works well, but I am not a fan for one major reason: A large majority of the nuts that people crack break into pieces and so are no longer viable seeds to germinate. I have absolutely zero scientific evidence that this impairs the lowering of phytic acid, however I do know that this impairs seed sprouting, and so it leads me to believe that this method would have no effect on phytate. Unless of course you are an expert nutcracker that always ends up with whole nuts.