Notes on Quotes-Gardening with the All American Black Walnut Tree
By Gordon Mercer and Marcia Gaines Mercer
“The practical and aesthetic combine in black walnut to make this species one of the most treasured trees in American History.” Samuel Arnold
“Why don’t we just walk here?” The day was hot, but we had been writing all day and needed exercise.
“We could take Elsa.” Our pet goat adores hiking with us, or in her case, “going out to dinner,” as she samples every leaf along the way. We have a short trail on our 7 acres and the terrain is steep in places and is an acceptable workout. Taking Elsa from her pen, we started up the hill and then down through the dark forest entrance. Elsa stopped to munch every few feet but then ran to catch up. Goats are herding creatures and will generally not wander too far from their companions. Coming out of the forest loop along the creek, the raised beds of the vegetable garden came into view and then we saw it…..
We started this garden season with enthusiasm. We aerated the raised beds, fertilized, and have (so far) not had to use pesticides. We moved the bed near the black walnut tree further away because it fared poorly there last year. The rains came, tomatoes, spinach and cucumbers sprang into glorious bushiness and the squash blossoms are as big as lilies. The terra cotta pots housing the herbs couldn’t be lovelier.
We wrote recently about how in gardening each year we learn something we didn’t know. Did you know that black walnut roots grow, spread, creep, encroach, expanding into more and more ground, reaching further and further and further? Perhaps we exaggerate but our once thriving bed of heirloom tomatoes are looking poorly in contrast to the rest of the beds and our heirloom tomatoes are in the bed nearest the………black walnut tree!
“That bed grew our best crop last year!” Marcia shrieked.
It’s called allelopathy which according to one website means, the release of chemicals that destroy certain plants that are nearby. The definition specifically mentions black walnut trees.
There are many black walnut trees on our property. Grass and weeds grow under them just fine and some vegetables are not bothered by juglone, the name of the offending substance. Corn is okay, as well as onions, some beans and beets. Maybe next year we will get it right.
The mother black walnut tree is gorgeous. She sits off our back deck and is magnificent. There is a swing hanging from one of her stoutest limbs that generations of children have enjoyed. The rope hangs from a rather high branch and gives the swinger the sensation of flying. Standing under the tree and gazing up into the complex canopy of leaves against blue sky is a Mother Nature art show extraordinaire.
Walnut trees are used to make expensive furniture, gun stocks, coffins and veneer for fine cabinets and the value of a walnut tree can be very high, depending on the quality of the tree. Walnut tree products are used in paints, cosmetics, oil sealant for drilling oil wells, dynamite fillers, dental cleaners and folk healing remedies. Some of Charleston’s most expensive antique furniture is made of black walnut, including very early baby cradles.
There is a black walnut tree in the front yard of Marcia’s childhood home. She remembers her grandparents piling the walnuts in a huge pile and then driving the car over them to loosen the hulls. They were left to dry before being cracked open on the sidewalk with a hammer and shelled. Their earthy taste was wonderful by itself and even better in homemade poundcake. Gordon remembers sitting with a hammer near a large rock on his grandparent’s farm and cracking the delicious nuts for hours at a time. When his grandfather died and the grandchildren were grown, his grandmother sold the walnut trees and used the money for repairs on her 1870s home place. Gordon was sad about the loss of the trees but glad she had been able to repair the roof on her home.
Our pet goat, Elsa, loves black walnut leaves and munched them contentedly, as we walked our trail. She also loves poison ivy and anything with thorns.
Despite our differences with them, black walnut trees have earned their place in our hearts. Right now we just wish they got along better with heirloom tomatoes!
Gordon Mercer is past president and on the Board of Trustees of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a published author and columnist. They were married in Charleston and have a place in nearby Garden City, South Carolina.