Thursday, August 31, 2006
It’s Fructidor 14 in the French Republican calendar and the plant for today is the walnut.
I grew up in a suburban ranch house built in the San Fernando Valley in 1950 on the site of an old walnut orchard and there were three magnificent old walnut trees in our front yard. They were the oldest trees on our property and great climbing trees with their broad branches. I remember vividly the particular nutty smell of their leaves, the thudding sound of the nuts hitting the ground, the many techniques we devised to open them (the most effective was to hold two shells in one hand and crunch them together but we also used hammers and the sidewalk) and the wonderful flavor (although every once in a while you’d bite into a nut that had gone bad—been wormeaten?—and that would horrible taste would linger).
I’ve been missing walnuts as trees recently and just a few weeks ago discovered there is one growing right across the street. I discovered it during the bunny caper. One of my neighbors (we don’t know exactly who) abandoned three pet bunnies in the vacant lot, where the house used to stand that burned down). One day I was walking Pepe the Chihuahua down the street and we saw something white hopping down the sidewalk in front of us. It was one of the bunnies on the loose, pursued by several neighbors who were trying to round them up, quite unsuccessfully. A quick search of various web sites let us know that we weren’t going to have much luck trying to capture them but they seemed content to hang out together in the vacant lot and despite our fears they managed to fend off the neighborhood cats. I took to bringing them carrots every day. Someone else left them a little dish of water. One of the neighbors contacted a bunny rescue society (I like to think of them as the bunny whisperers) who sent out a family—husband and wife and two young girls—and one morning last week they successfully captured all three bunnies.
It was while I was taking carrots to the bunnies that I heard that familiar thump of nuts hitting the ground, looked up and realized I was standing under a walnut tree, my old friend from childhood. Unfortunately, I found it too late to try making the Italian liqueur nocino which is made from green walnuts gathered on St. John’s Eve. Here's a web site which offers a recipe for making nocino:
The squirrels seem to be getting most of the walnuts and I doubt there will be many left for me. I find half-nibbled green husks all over the ground beneath the tree.
Lately I’ve been buying organic walnuts at the natural foods store around the corner and toasting them to add to salads. Occasionally I eat a handful as a late night snack. According to the Walnut Marketing Board, walnuts have more omega-3 than any other nut: They are also a natural source of melatonin, which may be why I crave them at night.
The Wikipedia article on walnuts
provides a good but surprisingly short overview, considering the history of the plant. The earliest known walnuts were grown in Persia and are sometimes called Persian walnuts, although they are more often known as English walnuts. These are the trees I grew up with, which were brought to California by Spanish missionaries. The black walnut is native to North America. It is known for its ability to poison the area around it with a compound, jugleone, found in all walnuts but more concentrated in the black walnut. Chelsie VandaVeer, has written about this in her article “What tree poisons competitors to preserve its territory?” at her web site:
One of my favorite research web sites, Vegetarians in Paradise, has a long article on the history of walnuts, including information about their health benefits
This site also features walnut folklore. The common name, walnut, means “foreign nut.” The “Wal” comes from the same word by which the English characterized the Welsh, as the strangers. The Romans also thought the nut was strange but they called it the Gallic nut, since it came from Gaul. The Latin name Juglans comes from Jupiter or Jove’s glans, and means Jupiter’s nut. It is also associated with Jove’s wife, Juno, and with fertility.
Mrs. Grieve, as usual, provides a thorough discussion of the walnut, including the use of its leaves and bark in making dye and in curing skin diseases. She also provides recipes for pickling green walnuts.
For a visual treat, check out this beautiful photograph of fog in a walnut orchard, taken by Anthony Dunn
The illustration of the walnut comes from Mrs. Grieve’s site: