The walnut tree that predates all the rest is believed to originate in Central Asia. In the book, The Encyclopedia of Wood, writer Luke Hughes traces its “travels” from Asia to Italy, where it was transplanted by the early Greeks. From there the Romans took it north, dedicating the tree to the god Jupiter and calling it jovis glans or Jupiter’s nut. That name became the basis for its botanical name juglans. Hughes adds, “There was no wide dissemination of the tree or timber in Europe before the time of Charlemagne, though the Romans had certainly introduced it to England by the first century A.D.”
Hughes and others believe that the English name for the tree comes from the Old English term wahl, which means foreign. The European walnuts (Juglans regia) are named most commonly by the country of origin. Today, European walnut is most commonly found in France, Italy and Spain, but still grows in other parts of Europe.
American black walnut
The species native to North America, American black walnut, was first known as Virginia walnut and was believed to have been planted in England in 1656.
American black walnut’s growing range is from southern Ontario, Canada, to Texas. It is also found from Maine to Florida. There are several related species of walnuts in the western United States, among them Arizona walnut or nogal (Juglans major); Texas black walnut (Juglans ruprestis); Southern California walnut (Juglans californica); and Northern California walnut (Juglans hindsii).
Larry Frye, executive director of the American Walnut Manufacturers Assn., in Zionsville, Ind., said that walnut has been a popular furniture wood around the world because of, among other things, its inherent durability. Since Colonial times it has been transformed into beautiful furniture designs and is found in many heirloom and antique pieces. Walnut is popular for architectural woodworking and decorative panels and is considered to be one of the finest cabinet woods in the United States. It is one of the few woods that improves with age, finishing beautifully and developing a rich patina as the years go by – a fact that has earned it the nickname “the aristocrat of American woods.”
Another possible reason for its nickname is its statuesque appearance. Walnut is one of the largest hardwood trees found in the United States and, of the two species of walnuts, the American black walnut grows taller than its European cousin. Another difference between the two species, Frye said, is that American black walnut will darken with age, while the European walnuts may become more pale with exposure.
A related species is Juglans cinera or butternut, a lighter colored hardwood that is sometimes stained to resemble black walnut.
Straight or wavy grain
American black walnut can be found with both a straight grain, or a distinctive, highly figured grain. Curly and wavy figures can produce interesting looks in veneers such as walnut butt, crotches, burls, fiddleback, leaf, and straight stripe.
Herbert Edlin and Maurice Nimmo, authors of the book, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, write that the unusually grained wood known as burr walnut “fetches very high prices as veneer; these burrs are large swellings on the trunk caused by abnormal cambium growth owing to infection by fungi, bacteria or other agents. This is an interesting example of diseased wood being more valuable than healthy timber.”
Besides being a beautiful cabinetry wood, walnut is an excellent choice for carving and lathe work. It is also a common choice for gunstocks. “Walnuts are indispensible trees for gunstocks,” said Hugh Johnson in The Encyclopedia of Trees. Because of the woods’ weight, elasticity and smoothness of touch, walnut handles a gun’s recoil better than any other wood.
Black walnut loses moisture very slowly during air drying. Kiln drying is also a slow process with American black walnut. For machining purposes, black walnut is rated hard, stiff, very resistant to shock and suitable for steam bending. It has an inherent oily nature and will cut cleanly and finish beautifully.
From dye to nuts
American black walnuts contribute other “products” to the American economy. The bark of the trees and the husks from walnuts are used to manufacture yellow dyes. The walnut shells can be used in glues, plastics and for cleaning solutions. Then, of course, the trees yield a popular treat – walnuts. Both American and European species yield edible walnuts; Juglans regia was brought to this country specifically for walnut growing and is widely planted for that purpose in California and Oregon. Although the shells of the black walnut trees are thicker and harder than the English or European walnuts, some growers have developed thinner shelled varieties. Walnuts from both species are typically harvested by shaking the tree.
American black walnut has one “bad habit” according to Johnson. “It is capable of poisoning neighboring trees and shrubs, particularly fruit trees (including its own offspring) with a substance called juglone in its roots. Apple trees near walnuts are often known to die mysteriously. It is a sinister development in the battle for survival: happily a secret the walnut can’t impart to other trees.”
Juglans nigra of the Family Juglandaceae
American black walnut, black walnut, walnut, Virginia walnut, canaletto, black hickory nut, Canadian walnut, walnut tree.
Walnuts average in height between 100 to 150 feet with diameters of 4 to 6 feet. Average weight is 40 pounds per cubic foot.
Walnut is a tough and hard wood. Works well with machine and hand tools.Has mostly straight grain and is sometimes coarse. Nails and holds screws well. Glues well. Finishes well. Can be polished to high sheen.