Walnuts have a long and rich history. Historians think that walnuts originally grew in the ancient nation of Persia and preserved walnuts have been discovered at archaeological digs dated earlier than 2000 BC. Persians and Greeks grew walnut trees and through trading spread them to southern Europe and Asia Minor. Documentations show that ancient Greeks and Romans used both the walnut and its oil. Walnuts were thought to be sacred; ancient Romans thought they were eaten by the gods and in Persia only royalty could eat the nut. Later, walnuts served as an important food in Europe during Medieval times. Walnut oils were also used by famous European painters such as Monet and Cezanne as a medium to mix pigment.

There are about 15 different varieties of walnut, but the main types are:

English walnuts (Juglans regia) are the most common type of walnut. They actually are not grown in England but are given their name because of the English traders that introduced the walnut to early colonists. In the mid-1880s the English walnut was brought to California, and today California is the largest producer of these walnuts in the world. They are so popular because they have a relatively thin brown shell, making it easy to get the nutmeat. They have a sweet flavor that is offset by the slightly bitter skin.

Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) are named for their black shells. They are native to the western portion of the United States and are grown west of the Rockies and in California. Shelling black walnuts is a difficult process because they have a very thick shell that is hard to crack. Common ways of shelling black walnuts include using pliers, hammers, or even driving over the nuts with a car! Because of the shape of the shell it is very difficult to remove the nutmeat in one piece. On top of that, the walnut oils that are often produced when cracking the shell can stain hands and clothing. Black walnuts have a much stronger, often disagreeable flavor than English walnuts. They are not normally eaten alone but instead are mixed into savory dishes.

yclept informs me that Black walnut trees are an endangered species and that it is illegal to cut one down

The white walnut (Juglans cinerea) or butternut is grown in roughly the same regions as black walnuts. This type of walnut is very common and white walnuts are generally not sold for eating. Butternut extracts were used by early American settlers to dye clothing, including the uniforms of Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Because of this the word "butternut" is also a slang term for a Confederate soldier.

The walnut plant is related to the pecan and hickory family. Walnut trees grown to about 100 feet tall and produce nuts every year in the fall. The walnut is encased in a thick, textured shell that is surrounded by a husk like pecans. The brown or black shell is about 2 inches in diameter and has a characteristic wrinkled texture. Walnuts are harvested around September by shaking the trees to dislodge ripe nuts. Walnut trees are also grown for their wood. The wood from black walnut trees is particularly hard and durable and is often used to make furniture. It has a deep brown to purplish finish. White walnut wood is lighter in color and softer than black walnut wood. It is also used in furniture and can be used for carving.

Walnuts are often added to baked goods such as cookies, cakes, and brownies. They are a main ingredient in a variety of Middle Eastern desserts such as one of my favorites, baklava. Walnuts also blend nicely with savory foods such as grains and stuffings and they are often added to pestos. Walnut oil extracted from the nut can also be purchased. It has a nice nutty flavor and is generally drizzled over cooked vegetables and salads.

Walnuts are a good source of protein, vitamin B, folic acid, and vitamin E. They also have an extremely high level of polyunsaturated fat and are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.


The centre of the common walnut's natural range is in central Asia, from where it extended as far as the Balkan Peninsula. It was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans, the boundary of its distribution shifting markedly northward. Today it is widely planted in western and central Europe, the U.S.A. and other countries, although there are varieties native to the US. It is a tree which in central Europe does best on sheltered slopes in warm, hill country. On limestone rock it grows up to elevations of 700 to 800 metres.

A light-demanding species, the walnut requires fertile soil, and, in severe winters can suffer from frost damage. The young tree has a taproot, but in old trees the root system spreads to a distance of 15 metres from the trunk. The bark is ash-grey with shallow fissures. Open-grown trees have a short trunk and spreading crown. Under ideal conditions it can attain 30 metres in height. As in all walnuts the pith of the twigs forms plates and partitions with air spaces in between.

The tree is cultivated in gardens and avenues for its fruit- nuts- which it begins to bear from about its tenth year. The green husks split in September and October to release the nuts, whose oily kernel is very tasty and nourishing. The high quality wood (the heartwood is brownish, the sapwood greyish) is used to make furniture, rifle stocks and other special articles.

wertperch says: In Hungary, they are harvesting the nuts now (early October) - the country folk go out in the morning with long sticks and rattle the branches to bring the fruit down - the traditional manner of harvesting.

Wal"nut (?), n. [OE. walnot, AS. wealh-hnutu a Welsh or foreign nut, a walnut; wealh foreign, strange, n., a Welshman, Celt (akin to OHG. Walh, properly, a Celt, from the name of a Celtic tribe, in L. Volcae) + hnutu a nut; akin to D. walnoot, G. walnuss, Icel. valhnot, Sw. valnot, Dan valnod. See Nut, and cf. Welsh.] Bot.

The fruit or nut of any tree of the genus Juglans; also, the tree, and its timber. The seven or eight known species are all natives of the north temperate zone.

⇒ In some parts of America, especially in New England, the name walnut is given to several species of hickory (Carya), and their fruit.

Ash-leaved walnut, a tree (Juglans fraxinifolia), native in Transcaucasia. -- Black walnut, a North American tree (J. nigra) valuable for its purplish brown wood, which is extensively used in cabinetwork and for gunstocks. The nuts are thick-shelled, and nearly globular. -- English, ∨ European, walnut, a tree (J. regia), native of Asia from the Caucasus to Japan, valuable for its timber and for its excellent nuts, which are also called Madeira nuts. -- Walnut brown, a deep warm brown color, like that of the heartwood of the black walnut. -- Walnut oil, oil extracted from walnut meats. It is used in cooking, making soap, etc. -- White walnut, a North American tree (J. cinerea), bearing long, oval, thick-shelled, oily nuts, commonly called butternuts. See Butternut.


© Webster 1913.

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