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Nut Trees - The Walnuts

( Originally Published 1927 )



Hickories are included with their near relatives, the walnuts, in one of the most important of all our native tree groups. They are distinct, yet they have many traits in common—the flowers and the nut fruits, the hard resinous wood, with aromatic sap and leaves of many leaflets, in-stead of a single blade.

The walnuts are decidedly "worth knowing." All produce valuable timber and edible nuts, and all are good shade trees. Four native walnuts are well known in this country, for in October, every tree in every bit of woods is likely to be visited by school boys with bags, eager to gather the nuts before some other boy finds the tree, and thus establishes a prior claim upon it. The curiously gnawed shells outside the winter storehouse of some furry woods-dweller reveal the most successful competitor boys have, the constant watcher of the nut trees, a harvester who works at nothing else while the season is on.

The Southwestern Walnut

Juglans rupestris, Engehm.

The walnut of the Southwest grows into a spreading, luxuriant tree, where its roots find water. But on the canyon sides, and higher on mountain slopes, it becomes a stunted shrub, because of lack of moisture.

The nut is smaller than that of the eastern walnuts and has a thick shell, but the kernel is sweet and keeps its rich flavor for a long time. The Mexicans and Indians are glad to have this nut added to the stores they gather for their winter food.

One striking feature of this tree is the pale, cottony down on its twigs, which sometimes persists three or four years. The long limbs droop at the extremities, almost deserving to be called "weeping." But nothing could be more cheerful in color than the yellow-green foliage, shining in the sun, against the white bark of the tree. In autumn the foliage turns bright yellow. A specimen, much admired, grows in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

The California Walnut

J. californica, Wats.

The California walnut is a stocky, round-headed tree, with heavy, drooping branches, and bark that is white and smooth on limbs and on trunks of young trees. Ultimately the trunk turns nearly black, and is checked into broad, irregular ridges. In bottom lands, along the courses of rivers, back thirty miles from the coast, these trees are found, from the Sacramento Valley to the southern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The foliage is bright pale green, feathery, the leaflets often curved to sickle form, showing paler silky linings. Californians admire and plant this tree for shade and ornament. Its greatest value is as a hardy stock upon which the "English walnut is grafted by nurserymen, for planting orchards of this commercial nut. The fruit of the native nut is excellent, but it cannot compete with the thin-shelled nut that came from Persia, via England.

The Butternut, White Walnut, or Oilnut J. cinerea, Linn.

In eastern woods the butternut is known by its long, pointed nuts, with deeply and raggedly sculptured shells, in fuzzy, clammy, sticky husks that stain the hands of him who attempts to get at the oily meat before the husks are dry. This dark stain was an important dye in the time when homespun cotton cloth was worn by men and boys. The modern khaki resembles in color the "butternut jeans," in which backwoods regiments of the Civil War were clad. Butternut husks and bark yield also a drug of cathartic properties.

Pickling green oilnuts in their husks is a housewifely industry, on the summer programme of many housewives still, if the woods near by furnish the raw material for employing her great-grandmother's recipe, brought from England, or perhaps from France. The green nuts are tested with a knitting needle. If it goes through them with no difficulty, and yet the nuts are of good size, they are ready. Vigorous rubbing removes the fuzz after the nuts are scalded. Then they are pickled whole, in spiced vinegar, and are a rare, delectable relish with meats for the winter table.

A butternut tree, beside the road, or elsewhere, with room to grow, has a short trunk, and a low, broad head, with a downward droop to the horizontal limbs. The bark is light brown, the limbs grayish green, the twigs and leaves all ooze a clammy, waxy, aromatic sap, and are covered with fine hairs of velvety abundance.

Because it is low and rather wayward in growth, late to leaf out in spring, and early to shed its leaves in summer, the butternut is not a good street tree. It breaks easily in the wind, and crippled trees are more common than well-grown specimens. Insect and fungous enemies beset the species, and take advantage of breaks to invade the twigs through the chambered pith. Short-lived trees they are, whose brown, satiny wood is used in cabinet work, but is not plentiful.

The Black Walnut J. nigra, Linn.

The black walnut (see illustrations, pages 31, 70) is the second species east of the Rocky Mountains, and the tree chiefly depended upon, during the century just closed, by the makers of furniture of the more expensive grades. Black walnut wood is brown, with purplish tones in it, and a silvery lustre, when polished. Its hardness and strength commend it to the boat and ship builder. Gunstock factories use quantities of this wood. In furniture and interior woodwork, the curly walnut, found in the old stumps of trees cut long before, is especially sought for veering panels. Old furniture, of designs that have passed out, are often sold to the factories, and their seasoned wood cut thin for veneering.

Walnut trees one hundred and fifty feet high were not uncommon in the forests primeval, in the basin of the Ohio and Wabash rivers. These giants held up their majestic heads far over the tops of oaks and maples in the woods. They were slaughtered, rolled together, and burned by the pioneers, clearing the land for agriculture. These men had a special grudge against walnut trees, they were so stubborn—so hard to make away with. How unfortunate it is that our ancestors had the patience to go forward and conquer the unconquerable ones. Had they weakly surrendered, and let these trees stand, we should have had them for the various uses to which we put the finest lumber trees to-day.

Unhappily, the growing of young trees has not been extensively undertaken to replace those destroyed. The newer forestry is awake to the need, and the loss may be made good, from this time forward.

The black walnut is nearly globular, deeply sculptured, with a sweet nut rich in oil, very good if one eats but a few at a time. Locally, they find their way to market, but they soon become rancid in the grocer's barrel. At home, boys spread them, in their smooth, yellow-pitted husks, on the roof of the woodshed, for instance, so the husks can dry while the nuts are seasoning. No walnut opens its husk in regular segments, as the hickories all do. But the husking is not hard. The thick shells require careful management of the hammer or nut-cracker, to avoid breaking the meats.

Dark as is its wood and bark, no walnut tree in full leaf is sombre. The foliage is bright, lustrous, yellow-green, graceful, dancing. A majestic tree, with a luxuriant crown from May till September, this walnut needs room to display its notable contour and size. It deserves more popularity than it enjoys as a tree for parks. No tree is more interesting to watch as it grows.

The bitter spongy husk deters the squirrels from gnawing into the nut until the husk is dry and brittle. Hidden in the ground, the shell absorbs moisture, and winter frost cracks it, by the gentle but irresistible force of expanding particles of water as they turn to ice. So the plantlet has no hindrance to its growth when spring opens.

Imitating nature, the nurseryman lays his walnuts and butternuts in a bed of sand or gravel, one layer above an-other, and lets the rain and the cold do the rest. In spring the "stratified" nuts are ready for planting. Some-times careful cracking of the shell prepares the nut to sprout when planted.

The Japanese walnuts (J. Sieboldiana and J. cordiformis) are grown to a limited extent in states where the English walnut is not hardy. They are butternuts, and very much superior to our native species. A Manchurian walnut has been successfully introduced, but few people but the pioneers in nut culture know anything about these exotic species. South America and the West Indies have native species. So we shall not be surprised, in our travels, to find walnuts in the woods of many continents.

The English Walnut J. regia, Linn.

Originally at home in the forests of Persia and north-western India, the English walnut was grown for its excellent nuts in the warm countries of Europe and Asia. It was a tree of great reputation when Linnaeus gave it the specific name that means royal. Indeed, this is the tree which gave to all the family the name "Juglans," which means, "Jove's acorn," in the writings of Roman authors. Kings made each other presents of these nuts, and so the range of the species was extended, even to England, by the planting of nuts from the south.

It became the fad of gardeners, before the fifteenth century, to improve the varieties, and to compete with others in getting the thinnest shell, the largest nut, the sweetest kernel, just as horticulturists do now. In 1640 the herbalist Parkinson wrote about a variety of "French wallnuts, which are the greatest of any, within whose shell are often put a paire of fine gloves, neatly foulded up together." Another variety he mentions "whose shell is so tender that it may easily be broken between one's fingers, and the nut itsself is very sweete."

In England, the climate prevents the ripening of the fruit of walnut trees. But the nuts reach good size, and are pickled green, for use as a relish; or made into catsupshusks and all being used, when a needle will still puncture the fruit with ease.

In America, the first importations of the walnuts came from the Mediterranean countries, by way of England, "the mother country." In contradistinction to our black walnuts and butternuts, these nuts from overseas were called by the loyal colonists "English walnuts," and so they remain to this day in the markets of this country.

It was natural and easy to grow these trees in the Southern states. But little had been done to improve them, or to grow them extensively for market, until California undertook to compete with Europe for the growing American trade. Now the crop reaches thousands of tons of nuts, and millions of dollars come back each year to the owners of walnut ranches. Hardy varieties have extended the range of nut-orcharding; and so has the grafting of tender varieties on stock of the native black walnut of California.

The beauty of this Eurasian walnut tree would justify planting it merely for the adornment of parks and private grounds. Its broad dome of bright green foliage in summer, and its clean gray trunk and bare branches in winter, are attractive features in a landscape that has few deciduous trees. A fine dooryard tree that bears delicious nuts, after furnishing a grateful shade all summer, is de-serving the popularity it enjoys with small farmers and owners of the simplest California homes.

As a lumber tree, the walnut of Europe has long been commercially important. It is the staple wood for gun-stocks, and during wars the price has reached absurd heights, one country bidding against its rival to get control of the visible supply. Furniture makers use quantities of the curly walnut often found in stumps of old trees. The heart wood, always a rich brown, is often watered and crimped in curious and intricate patterns, that when polished blend the loveliest dark and light shades with the characteristic walnut lustre, to reward the skilled craftsman.

In the United States this wood is rarely seen, because the trees are grown for their nuts. They require several years to come into bearing, are long-lived, have few enemies, and need little pruning as bearing age approaches.



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