Commentary: Ugly Tree Inspires Love

Environmental Commentary by Tim Rowland

The Eastern black walnut tree doesn’t inspire poets to new heights. In spring, it is the last tree to leaf out; its pulpy flowers make a mess of patios and sidewalks; and in autumn, its leaves are the first to fall, turning a sickly yellow and contributing no spectacular colors to the fall palette.

The dense husks that protect the nuts break down from a pungent green to a sloppy black, producing a stubborn dye that will stay on hands for weeks and clothes forever. In winter, the dark, craggy limbs brood sullenly, and even in summer, its toothy leaves mimic a goofy grin.

Maybe worst of all, the tree contains a toxin that is harmful to a wide range of plants and shrubs. Backyard gardeners who are unable to raise tomatoes frequently find the culprit to be a nearby black walnut.

The tree “doesn’t look particularly good in the spring or in the fall or — well, ever,” quipped Western Maryland forester Aaron Cook, a rangy, bearded man who looks exactly as a forester ought.

Cook, of course, is speaking out of love. He and a small posse of walnut wranglers scour Western Maryland, collecting tons of walnuts to send to the state nursery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they are grown to seedlings — 10,000 of them or more — that are planted along stream banks where they sequester the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that threaten the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Each fall, the call goes out through fliers, newspaper articles and public service spots: If you have a few bushels of walnuts, the state will be happy to come get them. And many homeowners are happy to get rid of them. A mature tree can drop an astounding number of nuts that, in the husk, can approach the size of tennis balls.

The state nursery owns the patent on a special piece of machinery it invented to drill the extra-large seeds into the ground. It has also figured out how to put the walnut poison to good use: grinding its husks into a mulch that discourages weeds.

Despite a general lack of respect, the black walnut does have its share of assets. A century ago, the American chestnut—which has since been all but wiped out by blight— dominated Eastern ridge tops, while the walnut ruled the limestone valleys and stream banks. This pedigree makes the tree an excellent pollutant fighter, as the state works to establish vegetated buffers along rivers and streams.

As outlying counties are under pressure to spend liberally to reduce stream contamination, Cook said that black walnut groves can go far to mitigate nonpoint source pollution, thereby reducing the amount of money local governments — and taxpayers — will have to pay out to meet environmental mandates.

Landowners who choose the walnut (dozens of tree varieties are available from the state nursery to those who participate in the state’s planting program) for their stream-buffering needs will, with patience, discover other perks as well.

Chief among them are the nuts themselves, at least for those who possess the determination to husk them and crack the heavily armored shell. Standard nutcrackers are often too flimsy, leading to a host of home solutions, from smashing them with an anvil and hammer to driving over them with an automobile.

Shelled walnuts can bring $15 a pound, and the culinary reward is a strong, earthy flavor that for many is an essential in cakes, pies and maple ice cream. Aficionados insist that next to a black walnut, the lighter and milder English walnut suffers from a lack of personality.

The wood of a black walnut is valuable, and in some cases quite valuable. Poaching black walnut trees is not unknown in the Allegheny farms and forests. A clear, black-walnut log, depending on the size and quality, can fetch between $2,000 and $10,000. It can be tricky, however, to judge the market for black walnut, since knowing when to sell is something of an occult art, causing some lumberjacks to sit on their stashes for years at a time.

Walnut crops vary as well. This year, Western Maryland foresters collected a disappointing (by their standards) 350 bushels of nuts. That’s about a third of the normal haul, but still represents more than 10,000 pounds of walnuts.

So there will continue to be plenty of one– and two-year seedlings to set out in defense of the Bay, and to provide spinoff benefits for people who pay taxes, eat ice cream and believe that, where trees are concerned, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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