Mom called the other day to tell me the nuts were falling in Connecticut, and to ask me if I wanted her to get me any. Well, geez, I thought, I would be remiss to look a gift horse in the mouth, now wouldn’t I?
“Sure Mom, that’d be great—how about acorns, hickory nuts, and black walnuts?”
The hickories are a pain in the ass to shell, but I’ll take ‘em and do it anyway. And I like processing small batches of acorns on the countertop after Mom has dried them for me, to leach out the tannins and make flour for yummy acorn pancakes.
Black walnuts (Juglans nigra), however, I’ve used exactly once.
As a young woman growing up in Connecticut I always saw them—the nuts encased in thick, round green husks, making them look like tennis balls, and hanging from tropical-looking pinnately compound leaves—but I didn’t figure out what they were until I was living on the other side of the country. Now that I don’t live close to black walnuts anymore, I’m of course all the more curious.
The black walnuts I played with last year came to me pre-dried, thanks to my friend Butter who collected them from the street in some Denver-area neighborhoods, and then dried and gave them to me. I knew you should use gloves when trying to remove the nut from dry or fresh husk, because it is well known they will stain your hands black. So I’d told my mom that. Later, she called and left a message asking for more details.
But I was busy at the time, so I took a couple days to call her back—by which point she’d tired of waiting and decided to go for it. She read a few posts online and then donned rubber gloves and set to work on them. First she tried cutting them in a circle with a razor and then twisting the husks off, an adaptation of a suggestion she read online to put a knife in a vice and roll the green fruit in a circle against it. But it turned out to be too time consuming.
So then she put the nuts in a pillowcase, tied it with a twist tie, put it behind the back wheel of her car, and ran it over a couple times, getting out a couple times to inspect the batch and make sure every husk was crushed. She is very happy about how well this worked.
After cracking open and discarding the husks, Mom then went to town on those nuts with a wire brush. At one point, my sister called her, but she wouldn’t get on the phone because she was processing nuts for me. And then her hands started burning, but she kept at it because the whole process was so messy she just wanted to get through with it. She scrubbed those nuts cleaner than any black walnuts I have ever seen.
However, when she took her gloves off, her hands were stained black, and she described spots on her middle fingers as “beet red, almost purple.” There was a rash on her arms, too, and later, a couple of big, painful blusters emerged on the worst finger, with some pinhole-sized blisters on the adjacent black fingers besides.
Mom used gloves to process those fresh black walnuts—but we are thinking that the steel brush poked tiny holes in them, such that the oils were able to penetrate and do their stain-work on her hands. She was wearing Dad’s old dress shirt, which has holes above the cuff as dress shirts do—and that’s where the rash developed. As for the blisters, well, if I’d only just re-read Sam Thayer’s chapter on black walnuts (Nature’s Garden, 2010) immediately after she called and then given her a call back, she might not be in the situation she is today.
For as Thayer writes, “Besides staining your skin, heavy exposure to the juice of walnut husks can also cause soreness, especially under the fingernails. If you get squirted by walnut juice (as might happen if you hit one with a hammer or stick) it is a good idea to wipe or rinse it immediately, as it can cause a burn-like sore, especially where the skin is thin.” Yikes.
The stained hands are no small matter either. Thayer writes: “Once it dries, it absolutely will not wash out. You will be stuck with ‘walnut hands’ for 10-20 days.” He, of course, wears the stain “as a badge of honor,” and does not use gloves processing them, but as he writes, “your priorities may differ.” And your skin sensitivity, for that matter.
So I cannot help but ask myself, over and over again: What kind of forager am I if I cannot protect my own mother from such a cruel fate?
One that can’t return a phone call in a timely matter, apparently.
Later, my mom went to her golf game with the ladies with her finger wrapped in gauze. When they asked what happened, she explained the walnuts. Her friend said (I paraphrase): “I’m so glad you told me about the walnuts. My son asked me to collect black walnuts for him and I did and then I almost cleaned them to be nice. I’m so glad I didn’t do that. He can do it himself.”
(This of course begs the question as to why so many foragers have their poor mothers out collecting wild food for them.)
And yet, having what amounts to chemical burns on her stained, rash ridden fingers did not deter my mom. She collected another bucket full of walnuts, which this time she plans to dry out before processing, “to see if it’s not so miserable,” she told me.
Meanwhile, two thousand miles away and living vicariously through her experiences, I apparently have a lot more to learn about black walnuts. Far from a conclusive story, then, I post this instead as fair warning to the black-walnut-inclined who are either delicate of skin and/or doing favors for their forager children.