Harvesting Black Walnuts

Walnuts are a fantastic nut. They are high in protein and rich in omega 3 fatty acids which are proven to be good to maintain a healthy heart. There are English walnuts and black walnuts. Black walnuts which are native to America have a stronger flavor and a thicker shell.

They are harder to hull than English walnuts because of their thicker shells. The Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra) is hardy throughout the east of the USA and Canada. In other regions, it is hardy in non native areas up to and including USDA zone 4.

Many old farms had one or two black walnut trees. They were valued for the shade they gave, for their nuts and of course for their fine timber which was used for the finest carpentry work.

All walnut trees are deciduous and all produce delicious fruit. The trees are relatively problem-free to grow once they are established. New grafted trees are expensive, but will produce nuts after just a few years, as opposed to having to wait over 10 years for a tree grown from seed to bear fruit.

We had Fun This Weekend…

The kids and I gathered black walnuts from a huge walnut tree on my dad’s part of the property last weekend. He’s had this land for over ten years now, and this is the very first time I’ve ever decided to use the walnuts for anything! Terrible, I know.

Harvesting nuts is not as easy as it sounds. It’s actually quite a process.

Black Walnut nut and leave detail

Finding Black Walnuts

The first step in harvesting black walnuts? Finding them, of course! If you don’t have your own black walnut tree growing in your own backyard, you can always ask a friend, neighbor, or local property owner.

Often, they’ll be happy to let you harvest until your heart’s content, mostly because black walnuts are unsightly when left to fall on the lawn – and they pose a tripping hazard.

Not sure how to identify a black walnut tree? It sounds complicated, but actually, it’s quite simple.

Black walnut trees, or Juglan nigra, can be found throughout most of the central and eastern portions of the United States. The exception is very northern and very southern portions of this range.

Nearly all black walnuts come from trees growing in the wild, though some people do plant them. However, they’re unlike other kinds of walnuts, like English walnuts, that come primarily from cultivated orchards.

Black walnuts and English walnuts have distinct flavors, so if you haven’t given black walnuts a try, you owe it to yourself to do so. These walnuts are rich, bold, and distinctive – definitely worth a try!

Part of the Juglandaceae family, black walnuts are related to all other walnuts as well as hickories. There are 21 species in this genus, and five walnut species that can be found in North America, including butternut, Arizona walnut, black walnut, and more.

Black walnut trees tend to grow in riparian zones. These are places that naturally occur between creeks, rivers, and dense woods. Fond of sunny areas, the black walnut tree rarely grows in the shade. Of course, some people plant black walnut trees, too – so you are likely to find them even if they aren’t growing in these so-called riparian zones.

One interesting fact about black walnut trees is that they are uniquely allelopathic. This means that they release chemicals into the ground that can poison other plants. While there are some plants that can tolerate these chemicals, you can often identify a black walnut because there are numerous dead, dying, or yellowing plants nearby.

As a result, black walnut sometimes looks like it’s growing like a weed, appearing along roadsides and in open areas. This is due in part to the fact that it can kill nearby plants, as well as the fact that squirrels and other animals will harvest and distribute the nuts.

You might also find black walnut trees growing near trees that enjoy similar growing conditions, like white ash, silver maples, elm, yellow poplar, basswood, and hackberry trees.

Walnut trees are deciduous and can grow up to 130 feet tall. Their leaves are pinnate, with each containing up to 25 leaflets (but no fewer than five). The leaf itself will be attached to twigs in an alternate arrangement, with each leaf having an odd number of leaflets that can be either toothed or serrated.

One of the easiest ways to tell it’s a walnut tree, though, is that it will deposit round little nuts.

When the black walnut tree is dormant, you’ll have to look at its bark to identify it – you won’t have any leaves! You can look at the bark and search for leaf scars. In addition, the bark will be dark in color and somewhat furrowed. The aforementioned leaf scars by the twigs look somewhat like shamrocks.

During the dormant winter months, you may also be able to find abandoned walnuts lying on the ground among the tree, too. Black walnuts have yellowish-green husks that turn dark brown as they age. They are about two inches in diameter.

How to Harvest Black Walnuts

When you estimate that most or many of the walnuts are ready to pick, you should begin harvesting. You need to make sure you harvest the walnuts promptly, and that you don’t leave them on the tree for the birds or insects.

You also want to harvest the nuts before the outer casing or hull softens and blackens. Once the outer case goes black and soft, the nut inside can become bitter. The longer the hull stays on the walnut, the less pleasant and the more bitter the nut will be.

You need to wear rubber gloves because the shells of the nuts contain chemicals including tannins, which can stain your hands and fingers. Some people also find these chemicals irritate their skin. The hull of the black walnut is often used to make black walnut dye, and is also used in the preparation of black walnut ink. The leaves of the walnut tree can be collected in Spring and used to make a dark brown dye.

When you are ready to begin to harvest your walnuts, take the nuts that you can reach off the lower branches of the tree. For nuts that are on higher branches, you need to have a long pole. For larger trees, you need a pole which has a hook on the end. Using the pole, shake the nuts loose from the tree. Then the nuts can be harvested more easily and more effectively.

Although it is perfectly possible to harvest the walnuts by hand, it is also possible to obtain walnut harvesters. The mechanical, ball styled, rolling harvesters really speed up the picking. Some are even electrically powered.

You simply roll the walnut harvester along the ground and the harvester will pick up the nuts as it moves along. When the cage is full, you simply open the hinge and tip the walnuts that have got caught inside, into your bucket.

Sometimes the nuts will get jammed in the cage, and sometimes you may step on some walnuts as you are moving the walnut harvester along the ground. But with a little care and attention, you will find that this is a very effective, speed saving device.

It’s also good to use this because fallen walnuts can damage lawn mowers, so you don’t want to leave them on the grass even if you don’t want to harvest the walnuts!

The walnuts will fall to the ground and you need to pick them up from the ground as soon as possible. Use a bucket to collect them. If they remain on the ground for long, they will go moldy and infested by ants or other insects.

The nuts you have picked should be sorted. Discard those that have hulls that have stuck to the walnut and which have turned black. Any nuts which are particularly small or damaged should also be discarded.
You can feed these to animals and poultry.

Chickens in particular adore walnuts, and they don’t have any objection to eating ones which are bitter. The shell also provides the chickens with the equivalent of grit.

Black Walnuts have a husk around the shell that needs to be removed before you can even get to the shell of the nut. When the walnuts are ripe, they will fall from the tree and the green husk will begin to turn dark. This usually happens late September or early October. Once they are dark, they are ready for the husks to be removed.

A quick way to tell if your walnuts are ready to be harvested is to simply crack a few open. If they’re ready to be harvested, the nuts will have brown membranes and loose hulls.

If you can select walnut samples that are as high on the tree as possible, since these ripen last and will give a good indication of the rest of the tree. Black walnut trees that are well-hydrated will produce fruits that ripen sooner than those that are water-stressed.

Wait to harvest until you think that about 85% of the nuts on the tree can be removed. Wait too long and other animals will get to the nuts, but start too early, and you’re going to have a lot of unripe walnuts to deal with.

You have to work quick though. Once the walnuts start falling to the ground, it’s a race between you and the squirrels to see who can get the most! A good tip when you are picking up black walnuts is to wear gloves! The juice from the black husks will stain your hands and clothes.

Wait until the walnuts have fallen to the ground, otherwise it can be difficult to determine whether they are ripe or not yet. Some people do harvest them directly from the tree by shaking them out with a pole, but I find this to be cumbersome and frustrating, as you’ll also wind up with a lot of walnuts that aren’t ripe yet.

That’s why I wait until they’ve fallen. Collect them as soon as possible to avoid the squirrels, again, but also to prevent the walnuts from becoming moldy as they lie on the ground.

As you harvest, you can put your black walnuts into a wicker basket or some other bin that you don’t mind getting dirty. Remember, those black walnuts really stain!

black walnuts

Washing Them

The kids and I filled our bags with the nuts and took them home to prepare. The nuts we harvested were really wet from the rain, so I decided to lay them out on one of the kids’ play tables outside to dry. I covered the table with an old window screen and laid rocks on the corners to keep it in place. This was to keep the squirrels out.

Washing walnuts is sometimes recommended, sometimes not. But washing the hulled walnuts can be a good way to separate good nuts from bad.

If you place the hulled nuts in a bucket of water you will be able to remove any juice or residue that remains from the hull. The nuts will still be in their shells. Any nuts which have rotted inside their shell, will float to the surface. These can be discarded. All the good nuts will sink.

Wash the walnuts well, and then lay them out to dry in a single layer on a tray. To speed up drying, you can turn them every day. If they are outdoors, then you need to cover them with bird netting.

You can also dry them on the shelving of your greenhouse if you cover them with something to keep out the light. It is possible that mice will eat or take some of the walnuts. It can therefore be preferable because of the mice risk, to dry your walnuts in mesh sacks.

You can use any loosely woven net bags. These bags can be hung up in a dry place, where they cannot be reached by vermin. They should be out of sunlight and somewhere where they can’t get wet from the rain.
Just as it is difficult to say when the walnuts are ready to pick, it is equally difficult to state how long the nuts will take to dry completely. Some people advocate leaving the nuts to dry for a month, others just a few days.

It all depends on your conditions and on the temperature and humidity levels. On average four or five days should be sufficient to result in nuts which are brittle and with a dry membrane between the two halves of the nut.

This is the goal and the purpose of the drying process – to end up with reduced moisture inside the nut. This is what will stop the nut from going moldy. It will also result in a nut which is not at all rubbery.

walnuts stolen by squirrel

Imagine my surprise when I went out to check on the nuts the next day and found that a squirrel had dug a hole through the screen and had stolen several of the nuts! The thief!

We had to move quickly before we were robbed of any more! So, the first step is removing the husk. An easy way to do this  is to step on it and roll it around under your shoe. The husk will easily come off, leaving a wet nutshell. Your hull might be too hard at first – I’ll give you more information on what to do in this situation later on in the article.

However, if your hull is nice and soft, you can crack it and remove it just as I mentioned above. If that doesn’t work, you can also use a hammer and chisel to remove it. Some people even jack up their cars and spin the wheels over trays of walnuts! I haven’t tried this, but it seems like it would be effective for large amounts of walnuts. There are also specialized dehulling tools that you can buy.

Another fun way to remove walnut hulls? Use a bit of plywood. If you’re only removing the hulls from a couple of nuts, use a hammer to force the nuts through a hole in a piece of plywood (the hole you drill should be about 1.75 inches in diameter).

From what I understand, there are even some places in the country that have hulling stations. This is one of the easiest ways to hull large amounts of walnuts, since they have mechanical hulling machines, but it can get expensive (and in most places, is not an option).

Resist the temptation to throw those hulls in the compost bin. Remember how I said that black walnuts are allelopathic? You don’t want to be spreading that compost in your garden next year – your plants won’t like it!

Next the nutshells need to be washed. They will be covered in wet, black residue from the husk. Again, wear gloves! I dumped all of the nuts into a 5 gallon bucket, filled it with water, and stirred it well with a big stick. I dumped out the dirty water and repeated this process about 10 more times. The nuts that floated I tossed out. Supposedly, those are the bad nuts.

If the nuts are very dirty, you can use a pressure washer or even just a hose with a powerful nozzle attachment to get them clean.

Another note: Don’t leave the husks anywhere on the ground where you want to grow other plants. They have some sort of chemical in them that makes it really hard for some trees and plants to grow. For this reason you should not try to compost the husks either.

When you’re cleaning the nuts, you may find that there are worms inside. Although this is gross, it does not affect the overall quality of the nut. You’re washing the nuts anyway, so simply remove the worms as you do so and move onto the next step.

drying black walnuts

Once the nuts were relatively clean, I spread them all back out on the kids’ table to dry in the sun. I crossed my fingers that the squirrel wouldn’t be back.

Drying Them

There are actually several ways you can dry the walnuts. Just lay them out on a table as I did, or, for even better results, spread them out on screened trays. This will give the walnuts excellent circulation.

You could also deposit the walnuts into a mesh bag and then hang them. This suspension will provide them with the circulation they need to cure properly.

Ideally, for the walnuts to dry well enough to hold up to long term storage, you should let them dry for four days at around 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (35 C to 37 C). This will help them harden up, and remove any moisture that could lead to mold.

You’ll know the nuts are dry when the kernels are brittle, which is a better indicator of whether they’re ready to go than simply the calendar. If you live in a humid area, it could take longer than four days for the walnuts to “cure.”

There is a simple test you can do to test for dryness. It’s not too technical and is called the Bounce Test! Drop the nuts about a foot from the ground on to a hard surface. If they bounce, they need more drying time. If they don’t bounce, then they are sufficiently dry and the membrane in between the two halves will be dry as well. Try this – it really works and will save you from cracking your nuts too soon.

Storage

Once the nuts are dry, you should store them in a cool, dry area. Once you are sure that they are dried, you can store them in the shell in five gallon buckets with lids.

Remember that whatever you choose to store them in needs to be well lidded so that it is rodent proof. You need to store them anywhere which is cool, dry and out of sunlight.

If you place them in the fridge, they will keep for up to a year. If you store them in a freezer, they will keep for several years without coming to any harm. English walnuts are much easier to crack, even if you don’t have nutcrackers. You can place the nut between two stones or even knock two nuts hard against each other.

Later in the day, I went out to check on the nuts. They were dry. Good. But just as I was about to go in and get a bag to collect the nuts in I spotted something creeping out of the trees… that rascally squirrel was back!

squrrel running with a walnut in its mouth

I sat down on a bench in the yard and watched what it would do. Slowly she crept up to where the nuts were. I got my camera ready, for evidence of course. Then, in the blink of an eye, that booger grabbed a nut and ran full speed ahead back to its nest! I still got a shot of her though. (This photo cracked me up!)

Grey squirrels have the potential to devastate the whole crop of walnuts.

If the squirrels are a problem in your area, then the best way to deal with them is to wrap the trunk of your tree with plastic tree guard. The squirrels won’t be able to grip this, and providing the lowest branches are at least 8 feet off the ground, this should stop the problem.

Anyway, now I’ll let the nuts dry for a couple of days or weeks in a cool, dry place… out of the squirrel’s reach! We did eat some of the nuts as we collected them. We used a rock to break the shells off. They are good fresh, but I think the flavor is better after they’ve cured a little while.

In fact, hulls will naturally soften over time. This will make it easier for you to get inside the nut if you’re willing to wait. If you harvest black walnuts and find that it’s hard to get the hull off, just set them aside for a few days.

Not sure if your walnut hulls are soft enough to be removed? You can do the dent test. If the walnut is ready to go, you can push on the hull with your thumb and leave a slight impression. Avoid harvesting walnuts with partially removed hulls, since they might be somewhat decayed inside.

Don’t wait too long to remove the hull, though. The longer a walnut remains in its hull, the more bitter the nut meat will become. Wait A few days if the hull hasn’t softened, but avoid waiting longer than two weeks, as this can lead to rancid-tasting nuts.

Cracking Them Open

Once they have been picked, you should remove the outing casing of the nuts with a pocket knife. Sometimes it is quite difficult to remove the outer hull. This is especially true with black walnuts.

One way to remove the hull individually, is by taking a piece of strong plywood and drill a hole which is around 4cm in diameter. Place the nut above the hole, and hit it hard with a hammer. The hull will remain and the nut in its shell should fall through the hole.

Alternatively, if you have a large quantity of walnuts to de-hull, you can drive over them! On a stone or concrete drive or yard, if you pile them up and then drive over them a few times, the hulls will loosen and be easy to remove. The nut itself, complete with the hard inner shell, should be left behind undamaged.

You do not want to shell more walnuts than you need, since once shelled the nuts will go rancid fairly quickly at room temperature due to their high oil content. If you cannot use them straight away, then you should keep them in airtight containers in the fridge or freeze.

This will help to retain their quality. Store bought walnuts are usually not very fresh and often they are of an inferior quality because the cost to store them in this way would be prohibitive.

Two pounds of black walnuts in the shell will give you around one cup of walnut meat once the nuts are cracked.

Eating Them

Of course, the most obvious thing to do with black walnuts is to eat them while they’re fresh. They are so delicious, especially after they’ve had time to cure. Once your walnuts are dried, you can store them in airtight containers for up to a year. They can also be frozen or packed in a basic food saver bag.

If you are someone who finds that the tannins in walnuts irritate your skin, then you may find that you get a sore mouth after eating some. Other people find that the nuts make them feel bloated after eating them.

This is due to the enzyme inhibitor content which prevents the nut from sprouting, but also makes them difficult to digest.

The best way to eliminate these two problems is to soak and dehydrate the walnuts. They are delicious and taste like roasted walnuts. No more digestion problems and no sore mouth.

You can shell the nuts before you store them, too. When shelled, black walnuts will last up to two years in the freezer, or you can salt-brine and dehydrate them so they’ll last even longer. To shell your walnuts, put the nut in a vise grip, apply pressure, and then pull out the nutmeat.

If you don’t have a vice grip, again, you can just use a hammer. Keep in mind that it’s really common for the nut meat to be broken into pieces as you crack the nuts. This won’t affect the flavor or shelf life of the nuts, of course, but if you really want the nuts to remain whole, you should soak them for a few hours before you crack them. They’ll absorb a bit of water and will be less likely to break, since they’re less brittle.

If you freeze your walnuts after this step, just be sure to let them sit out for a few days so that you don’t have to worry about them becoming freezer burned.

And as you crack your nuts, be sure to examine them for any damages. They could be contaminated with microorganisms or mold if you notice nut meat that is black, blue=streaked, or yellow.

Uses for Black Walnuts

Have more walnuts than you know what to do with – or sick of eating them, perhaps? I found some other interesting things that you can do with Black Walnuts, too:

  • You can use black walnuts to make dye for garments and other fabrics.
  • You can even dye your hair darker using black walnuts!
  • You can also make a wonderful fiber dye, wood stain, ink or paint with these nut husks.
  • Black Walnuts are also used in many herbal remedies, so you may want to consider making a black walnut tincture. It can actually be used as an iodine and preserving agent!
  • Black walnut may also be used to alleviate fungal infections, and is often used against issues like athlete’s foot, eczema, and cold sores. Black walnut tinctures made out of the hull are actually quite helpful at treating skin ailments.
  • Of course, black walnut wood can be used, too. In fact, black walnut is one of the most marketable and prized hardwoods around, used for furniture and other products since it is incredibly durable and beautiful. In fact, a 50-foot try can be valued at up to $2500 for its wood alone, often used to make gunstock, floors, and other fine carpentry.

Here’s a fun fact – black walnut hulls are even used as fillers in dynamite, and they were once used to clean the Statue of Liberty! I’m guessing neither of these uses are on your list of potential applications, but still interesting to note.

I plan on doing some baking with what we collected. I’m sure I can come up with some yummy Christmas gift treats!

In fact, black walnuts have a bold flavor that makes them perfect for sweetbreads, cookies, cakes, and more. They’re heart-healthy and incredibly rich in protein. They have the highest protein content of any tree nut!

Wrap-Up

Walnuts make a tasty, nutritious snack at any time of day! Mix them into hot or cold cereals, granola, or use them in baking. There are many, many recipes for using walnuts in the kitchen. Some examples you will find are for walnut pie, nut loaf, sweet fruit bread, or you can preserve them in a jar of honey for a delicious treat.

We have used the term “nut” and “fruit” interchangeably in this article. Technically, a walnut is not a nut but a type of fruit similar to peaches, apricots and cherries. It has an outer fleshy part (the hull) which encases the shell which contains a seed. Whether you wish to refer to it as a nut or a fruit, producing walnuts may be time consuming, but the results are well worth the effort.

What about you? Have you ever harvested black Walnuts? Have any advice or recipes to share?

updated 06/21/2021

  • 20
    Shares

8 thoughts on “Harvesting Black Walnuts”

  1. I gather black walnut every year. My Grand mother was an American Indian. Black walnut shells when green put into 100 percent grain alcohol becomes a medicine. This Medicine expells worms. She would let it cure for 2 years. It would turn black and we used it as an elixir.

    Let it sit for two weeks with the green outer remove the nut.

    Then remove the outer from the jar that was sitting in the dark area for two weeks. date and place in a dark area. After it had aged for two years she would use it. She always prepared some years in advance.

    A good crop was ever couple of years. Some years black walnut was to hard to use (green shell). I had to be removed very easily to use. for a good elixir. I use it today me and my grandchildren. to expell worms. cleaning every two years.

    Reply
  2. Our black walnuts are just starting to fall and I really want to do something with them this year. I remember playing with them when I was a child & getting black hands in the process. I’ve read that you can dry the leaves and that there are also uses for the husks. If I get really adventurous I may try to preserve the husks in some way too.

    Reply
  3. Gathering walnuts with my mom with my mom will always be one of my favorite pastimes. We would go out and gather then just as soon as they dropped off the trees, when the husks were still green.

    The house we lived in at the time had a crushed gravel driveway, so we’d spread them out in the driveway and allow the vehicles to run over them for a few days..breaking off those hard green husks. Then we’d gather them up and complete the husking process by hand. My mom always kept those mesh potato and onion bags on hand, so we’d fill those us and hang them in various places in the garage and barn for a few months dry out.

    When it came time to use the walnuts in various recipes from cookies to cakes and everything in between, Mom would pull out here hammer and crack a huge bowl full, then we’d sit in the living room picking the nut meat out of the shells while spending a leisurely evening together.

    Thank you for posting your blog, you’ve renewed some wonderful memories for me.

    Reply
  4. I laughed my head off at the pic of the squirrel—she’s bookin’ with that nut! (Note: if you have kitties, you won’t have squirrels. We know this for a fact.)
    I admit that we have several 30-year-old black walnut trees on our property, and we are only just now becoming interested in actually using the nuts. I was interested to learn that cracking them with a vise is effective.
    My great-aunt had a lifelong scar on her forehead that occurred when she and my other great-aunt, her sister, were fighting over a hammer to crack the black walnuts with when they were kids. Aunt M. told Aunt G., “Gimme that hammer!” and, well, Aunt G. did, with considerable force.

    Reply
  5. My in-laws have a black walnut tree and last year was the first time I ever harvested them. It is a process! But I candied and toasted them and they were awesome. A great little fall time snack!

    Reply
  6. My mother’s best friend used Walnut husks to cover the gray in her hair.

    I remember my mother getting a big trash bag of them and we husked them in the bag. I think it was to keep us kids from getting stains all over ourselves and our clothes. I can’t seem to remember if we ever ate them. I am guessing that we did. Or my parents did when we were in bed. They always have nuts in the shells for the winter. A tradition I have not continued.

    Reply
  7. The way we paid for our tractor to be serviced every year was with walnuts. We raked and bagged them up and Mr Fred repaired/serviced our tractor every year. He has since passed away but my husband says that is how they(his family) always paid him…. with walnuts!

    Reply
  8. that pic of the squirrel is so funny! I can imagine what he is saying, “thanks for the hard work, now all I have to do is eat it!”

    Reply

Leave a Comment