Planting Black Walnut Trees

In the long run, if you hold on to your land, planting a grove of black walnut trees can give you and your family shade, nut crops, and valuable timber.

| March/April 1981

I'm an avowed lover of wood, and am generally a whole lot more interested in working with the material than in burning it. So, when a proud friend escorted me to his basement and began explaining the maze of ducts on his new furnace conversion, I observed — with some horror — his ceiling-high pile of black walnut logs. Every piece was a foot and a half long with grain straight enough to make arrows!

At that point, almost the only thing I knew about walnut was that the local hobby supply outlet wanted seven bucks for a little carvin' flitch ... at any rate, I was pretty sure that there were better ways of using the expensive wood than simply making fuel of it.

Shortly after that experience, I heard about a black walnut tree in my area — the mid-Hudson Valley in New York state — that had been bought for $11,000! Well, my idle curiosity exploded into fanatical interest upon receiving that little piece of news! I wasted no time in getting out my tree identification books, locating and talking to hardwood buyers, and visiting both state and private foresters. Soon I was hiking every inch of woods on my property, looking for the deer-faced bud scars and twigs with chambered pith that identify the "golden" trees (while visions of five-figure cashier's checks danced in my naive head).

That was a year ago. I'm still poor, but I'm no longer naive ... and I've learned that there are some very real long-term rewards awaiting folks with enough foresight to plant and tend their own black walnut groves. And — although I've never found one — there's even a long-shot chance that you have a prize tree in your woodlot or dooryard right now, a specimen that could be sold for enough money to raise a new barn!

What's So Special About It?

Black walnut (Juglans nigra ) has been among the most desirable hardwoods — particularly for furniture- and cabinetmaking — ever since it was discovered in virgin stands on North America's shores over three centuries ago. It has a deep, unique, lustrous color and is dimensionally stable. It resists checking (that is, splitting ... either as it dries or as the result of changes in humidity). The heartwood (from the center of the tree) seldom decays. And walnut is actually stronger than white oak!

Over the course of American history, our supplies of black walnut have dwindled drastically. As the virgin stands were felled, the lumber that wasn't exported or used by colonial cabinetmakers went into fencing and barn siding.

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