An Invitation to Explore Black Walnuts (Plus 20 Ways to Extend Learning)

When we first moved into our house I was delighted that we had three black walnut trees in our front yard. Steve was less enthused, as he saw all those nuts on the ground as a nuisance to mow over. But, at that time I was obsessed with trying to produce as much of our own food as we could and here was a source of delicious and nutritious food that I didn't even have to plant or really tend. In my romantic vision, I gathered up baskets-full of nuts, cracked them by a roaring fire, and ate the fruits of my frugality and resourcefulness.

Needless to say, reality didn't quite look that way. Black walnuts are indeed awesome, but they are also quite labor intensive to process. First you have to peel away the pulpy green husk without dying your hands and your clothes black with the juices, and then you have to find a way to crack those suckers open. Black walnuts laugh at regular ol' nutcrackers; we had to use a vice to get the job done.

That first year, we harvested one quart jar of walnuts. And it took forever to do it. I found myself being very stingy with them, pondering if this cake recipe really deserved these walnuts, which was not at all in keeping with the sense of abundance that I thought local eating and sustainability should bring.

Each year that followed we processed less and less of them, but now with an almost-three-year-old in tow who thinks that the walnut trees and the mysterious green balls that fall from them are the coolest things ever, I'm finding myself rediscovering the magic.

A few weeks ago, before the leaves completely shed all their leaves and before our first dusting of snow, Silas and I did some gathering. There is a lot to talk about with walnuts. The sound they make when you throw them in the bucket. The variations in color, from yellow to green to brown to black. The hard husk that slowly gets softer and softer over time, and the stains left on our hands as we sink our fingers into them.

My parents gave me an old hand-crank corn sheller awhile ago. I read on some homesteading blog that you could use them to strip the hulls off and complete the double goals of speeding up the process and keeping your hands clean. So we tried a few in there, but it was way more fun to get in there with our hands and to get dirty. 

(A note: if your walnuts are very ripe, there is a good chance that there will be wormies in the husks. These are the harmless larvae of the husk fly. They can not penetrate the inner shell and do no damage to the nut, but they can be a bit of an "ick" factor, so be warned.)

He was so surprised to find the hard shell inside. "What's this?" he asked. Once the nuts were free of the husks, we laid them out to dry and have cracked a few to see what was inside, revealing another matryoshka-like layer in our exploration.

Black walnuts, or similar things that grow wherever it is that you are, provide a wonderful opportunity for really in-depth learning of the particular places where we are. By digging in and really getting to know those things that grow in our own backyards we come to care about them and feel compelled to protect them. This is especially true if you allow yourself (and your little one) to stick with it and to fully explore all aspects, rather than rushing on to the next thing.

One of the tenets of Reggio learning is that children need the opportunity to return again and again to the same task, the same subject matter, the same questions. Through repeated exposure, they are able to really examine their assumptions, experiment with a range of different ideas, and to work through and modify their theories about how the world works.

In brainstorming ways to incorporate black walnuts into our everyday lives this past month and to extend our conversation about them, I came across many (many!) ways that people have used them, both in the past and in the present. They can provide a vehicle to learn about science, history, cooking, art, and more.

Here is a sampling of some ideas to get you started:

* Beyond cooking and baking with them you can... 
* Incorporate walnuts into your art activities.
* Make dye to color yarn or cloth.
* Make ink.
* Use that ink like Henna and draw temporary tattoos on your skin.
* Make a black walnut wood stain.
* Include it in your natural remedy kit.
* Whip up some black walnut butter.
* Pickle them.
* Decorate with a black walnut garland.
* Make jewelry.
* Black walnut trees emit a chemical called juglone, which is responsible for inhibiting the growth of many plants, including those in the nightshade family. This presents all sorts of possibilities for scientific experiments in germination rates, rate of plant growth, etc.
* Dry the hulls to make black walnut powder, which you can use on teeth, to dye your hair, or to make an anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory soap.

Ideas for mama and papa:
* Make bitters.
* Make nocino, a Italian liqueur that dates back to Medieval times.
* Brew some black walnut beer.


  1. Wow! What a great collection of activities. I don't have access to black walnuts but this is definitely fascinating.

    Wishing you a lovely day.

  2. This was a fun post! I had no idea this was all so labor intensive. We really have no clue how much work goes into the food we buy in the stores.

  3. Hey, be careful with that stuff, especially with the kids. Black walnut juice contains a chemical called juglone. This is a known skin carcinogen that might cause tongue or lip cancer, especially if applied often.