I think walnuts are one of the easier things to forage for. I mean, there are no thorny branches to deal with, no backwoods to hike though, or no soil to dig though! If you live in a town with a historic area, chances are all you have to do is simply walk around your city streets. And now is the time for foraging for walnuts!
I live on the cusp of one such historical districts, and it’s 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, which detailed the town’s streetside walnut planting project. Its likely that these trees were planted around the same time. 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.
The differences between English walnuts and black walnuts.
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. Black walnuts can be eaten fresh, and are a valuable dye stock to produce a brown color for dying textiles. 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, and are often used as the root stock. Depending on how well the tree is maintained, you often find black walnut branches growing out from below the graft.
How to Forage for Walnuts:
You know when walnuts are ripe and the time is right for foraging when you start seeing them fallen on the ground, with their skins split open. To forage, just walk around town and collect off the sidewalk and the gutter. Going after a windy day is the most productive.
Black walnuts are also commonly found in natural areas. I see trees alongside our creek trails and along the river. If there are lots of the nuts still present on the trees, and you can reach, hit the branches with a long stick and then collect off the ground.
Fall is a too late, but earlier in the year you can also forage for green walnuts, and make a walnut liqueur known as Nocino.
Processing, Storing and Using
Once you’ve collected your walnuts, remove as much of the husk as possible.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. Set the nuts 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.
Walnuts 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. Need some more ideas on how to enjoy your foraged walnuts? Check out my Garden to Table Fall Pinterest board.
I’ll be sharing foraging tips all week!
If you enjoyed this, make sure to check out my other posts in this fall foraging series:
- How to Forage for Rose Hips
- How to Forage for Hazelnuts
- How to Forage for Wild Grapes (coming soon!)