Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Black Walnut

By Hugh Murphy

Juglans nigragenus:

Genus: Juglans

Common names:  black walnut, American Black walnut, American walnut 

Walnut trees have been a popular source of food the world over for thousands of years.  While pre-historic men and women were cracking open walnut shells in Europe, Asia and Africa, the indigenous peoples of North America were enjoying their own native varieties of this nutritious nut.  The black walnut continues to be a popular and versatile food on today’s dinner tables, as it was thousands of years ago.

The black walnut originated in the eastern regions of North America before spreading west to occupy nearly every temperate region between New York and California (Davidson, 833).  Today, black walnuts are an important commercial crop in the United States thanks to their unique flavor and popularity as a health food. 


Black walnut trees are large, fruit-bearing shade trees that can reach heights of up to 100 feet (EOG, 1193).  Their deep roots (9-10 feet long) reach lower than many trees of similar size, thus giving walnut trees good stability to support their trunks.  Deep roots also mean that walnut trees have difficulty soaking up enough water.  This is why many black walnuts grow near creek beds or in regions with regular rainfall. 

Walnut leaves are spear shaped and grow in two equal rows along the tips of each branch.  Each spear is light green and several inches in length.

Small, green walnut fruit appear in early summer before maturing into egg-sized spheres in late summer and early fall.  Ripe walnuts are green or brown and fall from the tree over a one to two month period.  Walnut meat is encased in a hard, black-ridged shell, which in turn is covered by a tough, green husk.  The shell and husk are not edible and must be removed before use.  This was generally done by blunt force or smashing between stones or hammers.

Black walnut meat is a good source of nutrients, particularly protein and fat.  Ripe walnuts are made up of nearly 75% oil (Niethammer, 56) and are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. 



While many American Indian tribes made use of walnuts, the Apaches were particularly fond of the nuts.  They ate nut meats fresh and raw, or added them to a variety of culinary dishes (Niethammer, 56).  Nuts were often ground and added to pemmican, soups and baked goods.  Oily mashed nuts were also used to flavor beverages, particularly in the southwest where they were mixed with agave pulp. 


Black walnuts were also used to treat a number of ailments in both humans and animals.  Juice made from green walnut husks was used to clean maggots out of wounds and to rid dogs of intestinal worms (Niethammer, 56).  The White Mountain Apache tribe rubbed their horses and livestock with a concoction of husk juice to protect the animals from parasites (Niethammer, 56).  A tonic made from walnut bark was also used to treat aches and pains associated with rheumatism.

Other Uses

Walnut husks contain a potent, dark brown dye.  Aging men often used this dye to return their graying hair to a darker color (Niethammer, 56). 



 “Black Walnut.” The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale, 1968.  

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.   

Niethammer, Carolyn.  American Indian Food and Lore.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.