"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"
THE BENEFITS OF THE USE OF BLACK WALNUT
IN HERBAL PREPARATIONS
HISTORY OF BLACK WALNUT
by Joel Brian Berry
The origin of the word nut is derived from the Latin nux referring to the fruit inside the shell, the nut kernel itself. The walnut tree's formal botanical name, Juglans regia, comes from the Romans. The word juglans, from the Latin, means "the acorn of Jupiter," while regia refers to royalty. You could actually translate its Latin name to mean "the royal acorn of Jupiter."
Because the walnut shell has an appearance reminiscent of the human brain, the Afghanistani word for walnut is charmarghz or "four brains".
Though many historians pinpoint Persia as the country of the walnut's origin, confusion persists because archeological remains of walnuts were found as far eastward as the Himalayas and to the distant west and northwest of Persia into Turkey, Italy, and Switzerland as well.
The oldest archeological site where walnuts were unearthed is in the Shanidar caves in northern Iraq. Following that find, at a considerable distance from Persia, evidence of walnuts was discovered in a Mesolithic dunghill in Switzerland.
During the New Stone Age or Neolithic period, items found in Switzerland's lake district included walnuts. The Neolithic period began in Southwest Asia from about 8,000 BCE and expanded throughout Europe between 6,000 to 2,000 BCE.
Traveling slightly eastward, archeologists delicately brushed away layers of dirt in Perigord, France, from Peyrat to Terrasson, to uncover petrified roasted shells of walnuts from the Neolithic period.
Mesopotamia, the area that is now modern Iraq, boasted of walnut groves in the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon about 2,000 BCE. As testimony, Chaldeans left clay tablet inscriptions that accounted for these orchards. These were the earliest written records mentioning walnuts.
From Medieval times up until the end of the 18th century, Europeans were blanching, crushing, and soaking walnuts and almonds to create a rich, nutritious milk, a common household staple. While the poor dined on the wild walnuts, the rich were able to afford the larger, more expensive, cultivated variety.
Toward the end of the 17th century, walnuts along with chestnuts became important staples in France. During the famine of 1663 the poor consumed their walnuts and then resorted to grinding up the shells along with acorns to create coarse, unpalatable bread.
In World War II when families living in the small villages of Perigord, a region in the southern part of France, had little to eat, they turned to their walnut groves for a source of protein.
Native American Indians enjoyed the pleasures and health benefits of the black walnut well before European explorers arrived. The upper Great Lakes region provides archeological evidence of walnut consumption dating back to 2000 BC. Along with eating the walnut itself, the Indians used the sap of the walnut tree in their food preparation. Wherever the black walnut grows, there is limestone in the soil, a good sign of fertile soil. The early Pennsylvania Dutch made a point of selecting properties that had a stand of sturdy black walnut trees on the land, assuring them of rich soil.
The early colonists carried seeds of the English walnut to the New World and planted them diligently where they settled in Massachusetts and Virginia. However, the trees did not adapt to their new climate and didn't even survive long enough to bear fruit. Black walnuts, however, were plentiful and soon became a valued ingredient in cookies and confections.
In the early 1800's Spanish Franciscan monks established missions along the California coast. Part of their teachings included the cultivation of food plants and trees in the areas surrounding the missions. One area that eventually became the city of Walnut, California, was home to the San Gabriel Mission named for the Gabrielino Indians, originally of Shoshone origin. Many acres of walnut trees, originally brought from Spain, were planted here and became known as "mission walnuts." These first walnut trees produced small nuts with very hard shells.
During the first half of the 1800's, land grants of several acres were issued, and ranchos were established. Walnut groves became well established on these land grants by the1870's in Southern California near Santa Barbara.
In 1867 Joseph Sexton, a horticulturist, initiated California's first commercial walnut enterprise when he planted a grove of English walnuts in Goleta, a small town in Santa Barbara County. Within a few years, 65% of all fertile land in this region was planted with Sexton's English walnuts. In spite of this early success, by the late 1930's the commercial walnut business was destined to move northward to Stockton, California, where improved irrigation, better pest control, ideal climate, and rich soil were more conducive to larger yields.
Today, the California walnut has found its ideal home in the center of the state, an area that produces 99% of the commercial United States walnut supply. On the global market, California produces two-thirds of the world's supply of walnuts. Other countries that grow commercial walnuts include Turkey, China, Russia, Greece, Italy and France.
Though the first walnuts to arrive in the United States came from Spain in the early 1800's, the French contributed many of their varieties during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Creative cooks and chefs of many countries have eagerly adopted walnuts and incorporated them into a multitude of dishes from soups to desserts and even dessert cordials.
Baklava, a well-known delicacy served throughout the Middle East, is a rich dessert made of alternate layers of buttered filo dough and ground walnuts. A final topping of sweet spiced syrup is poured over the top and allowed to soak in for several hours before the baklava is cut into diamond shapes and served.
Though we are most familiar with fully mature walnuts, green walnuts, completely edible but quite sour, are an ideal ingredient for pickles, jams, and marmalades. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many English cookbooks touted an abundance of recipes for pickling both black and green walnuts. In the Middle East, a sweet syrup is used to preserve half-ripe walnuts, a process that takes several weeks before the delicious confections are ready to eat. In Italy, walnuts are sometimes added to the pine nuts in the preparation of pesto, a thick basil and olive oil sauce served over pasta. The French enjoy their Walnut Soup and relish sauces made of walnuts, garlic and oil, while the Persians favor a dish called Fesenjen made of poultry or meat, walnuts, and pomegranate juice. The ancient Persians made a paste of ground walnuts and used it to thicken soups and stews. During the Middle Ages this handy technique was introduced into Europe. Before the colonists arrived in America, the Narragansett Indians of the Eastern United States also pounded the black walnut into a paste to thicken their soups and vegetable stews.
During the fourteenth century, walnuts appeared on the dessert list at a French royal banquet. The walnuts for this occasion were preserved in a spiced honey mixture that was stirred once a week for several weeks in preparation for the event.
The walnut tree has provided the creative entrepreneur many opportunities. The wood of the tree is exceptionally hard, making it ideal for fine furniture, wall paneling, musical instruments, sculpting, and woodcarving. The walnut wood has found its way into the kitchen in the form of plates and spoons, while the farmer employed the wood for animal yokes and water jugs. Even wooden shoes were formed from the walnut tree. During war times the Europeans made gunstocks from the firm wood of the walnut tree. During World War I, the hardy wood of the black walnut was used for making airplane propellers.
In past times walnut shells served many purposes as well. Pliny suggests crushing them finely to use for filling dental cavities. Imagine shaving with the edge of heated walnut shells instead of a razor. King Louis XI's barber engaged in this practice because he thought it would prevent nicks. To prevent bread from sticking, bakers would spread powdered walnut shells on the base of their ovens.
More recently, finely powdered walnut shells served many commercial industries. The powder was employed as a polish for metals used in the aeronautical industry and as face powder in the cosmetics field. Oil riggers use the powdered shells to sharpen their drills. NASA has even put powdered walnut shells to use as thermal insulation in rocket nose cones. Apparently, the powder can withstand extreme temperatures without carbonizing.
The French have created a fine liqueur with walnut husks as its base, but leave it to the Italians to create Nocino, a renowned cordial made from green walnuts. The recipe originated in Modena, where the unripe walnuts are picked on the Festival Day of St. John on June 24. The walnuts are cracked, steeped in alcohol for two months, and then filtered to remove any debris before the cordial is sipped with gusto.
In past centuries people discovered that all parts of the walnut could be processed to create colors and dyes. Furniture makers and finishers use the husks to create a rich walnut stain. Women developed a beauty secret to enhance their appearance, a hair dye made from the walnut hulls. Scribes made a rich brown ink from walnut hulls. Since prehistoric times weavers extracted a rich dark brown dye from walnut juice, while they used the green husks to make a yellow dye. The also boiled the bark to extract a deep brown dye used for coloring wool.
Before the age of mechanization, the traditional September harvesting of walnuts consisted of shaking the trees by hand using long hooked poles to knock the nuts to the ground where they could be easily gathered. Today, the trees are shaken by machine, while another machine uses vacuum suction to collect the fallen nuts.
Commercial hot-air dehydrators with blower fans circulate warm air to reduce the moisture of the walnuts to between 12 and 20% to preserve their shelf life. In past centuries, walnuts were simply left on drying racks away from the sun until they were properly dried.