The constant “thunk” we hear in the back yard means fall is coming. It is the sound of black walnuts dropping onto our garage roof, cars, and driveway. It is time to collect tree nuts.
Walnut trees seem to be everywhere in southern Wisconsin. Now that the trees’ leaves are falling, it’s easy to see the baseball-sized walnut husks hanging from the trees as one travels around. In most cases, landowners are not collecting their walnuts. In fact, most do not like having these trees on their properties. First, the trees contain juglone, a chemical that it spreads in its leaf litter and nut husks. It inhibits the growth of many other plants. Second, for some reason, people don’t like running their mowers over something like a golf ball wrapped in a husk. This means that many land owners would be glad of you taking walnuts off their property.
Every few days, I walk around under the canopy, collecting walnuts in a milk crate. The smaller ones fall through the open squares by design. Once I get a half a crate, I remove the husks with a extremely technical process called the stomp and roll: the nut in its husk is put on a rough concrete surface, I stomp it with my foot, and roll it back and forth. The husk comes right off and I pick out the remaining nut in its shell. This goes in a bucket. I wear gloves because the husks will dye the fingers dark brown. Once I get a full bucket, I wash and agitate the nuts before setting them in the sun to dry. Finally the dried walnuts are agitated again to remove the final bits of hull.
The nuts can be stored in their shells for a year or so, but to enjoy the energy-rich meats, they must be shelled. We were lent a Hunt’s Nutcracker, but a hammer, vice, or vice grips can also be used.
Todd Fleming, a friend of the institute, invited us to go foraging for autumn berries and hickory nuts at one of his favorite gathering places. Unfortunately the autumn berries weren’t available any more (the birds probably got them a week ago), but the hickory nuts were abundant.
Unlike the walnuts, hickory nuts separate from their shells cleanly and we picked up 11 lb in about an hour of walking around. Luckily the nutcracker works for hickory and walnuts alike.
Although we were not able to find autumn berries, Mr. Fleming was able to find nanny berries, which taste like blueberry and banana in a single fruit. And then the next day, while out on a run, I passed a dozen autumn berry bushes laden with fruit.