30 Jan 2006
Top Five Trees for Life Beyond Oil – #1 – The Walnut
I love walnuts. They are the finest tree you could ever plant. They should be planted everywhere, and it strikes me as one of the great wonders of our age that we have developed the life-size dancing and singing robotic Santa that wriggled its hips at me in a suggestive manner very time I went into my local corner shop over Christmas, but are only just starting to produce reliable fruiting varieties of walnut.
The first walnut I ever planted was at my aunt’s house, in her garden, to celebrate the birth of my first son, Rowan (some people would have planted a rowan tree, but no, it was walnuts for me…). It was a wee thing when I planted it, now it is huge, and rather glorious (and somewhat bigger than she thought it was going to be, much to her chagrin). Since then my love affair with walnuts has deepened, and now, when I say that walnuts will save the world it is no throwaway comment.
Walnuts are probably (though no-one knows for sure) one of the things you can reply when people say “so what did the Romans ever do for us?”. It is believed they brought them over, after they had been bred in Greece and Italy for a while, arriving there following a prolonged period of breeding and selection in Persia. So what’s so good about walnuts?
Well, firstly of course there’s the nuts themselves. They are delicious, and contain the same amount of protein per gram as chicken (15.23 g. of protein per 100 g). You can pickle them, make them into pesto, nut roasts, all sorts. You can make an oil that you can eat raw or cook with, or make a kind of butter from. According to dietobio.com, walnuts contain potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, vitamin B9, B6, E, A and also contain substantial amounts of dietary fiber. The fats they contain in their oil are high in poly and monounsaturated fats and especially linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid, also known as Essential Fatty Acids. They are very good at lowering cholesterol in the body. The dried nuts can be ground into a highly nutritious flour.
As a timber few things come close. It is the mahogany of these climes, dense and fine grained. It is also a good firewood (although a rather extravagant one, walnut wood being highly valuable!). It also has medicinal uses. A more detailed outline of its many uses can be found at Plants for a Future.
Until recently, all walnut trees available in the UK were bred from seed. Now Manse Organic Grafted Walnuts have started breeding walnuts by grafting. These have the advantage that they fruit earlier (in 5-7 years) and produce a timber crop sooner. They are a bit smaller than the better known huge English walnuts. Another place that has been doing a lot of work with walnuts are my neighbours, the Agroforestry Research Trust, based here in Totnes. Martin Crawford has produced an excellent ‘everything you could ever want to know about walnuts’ book, Walnuts – production and culture.
I asked Martin for his views, based on his walnut trials, as to the most reliable fruiting varieties for the UK, he suggested ‘Fernor’ and ‘Fernette’. Clive Simms has written an excellent guide to walnut growing, Nutshell Guide to Growing Walnuts. You can buy walnut trees bred for good fruiting from Keepers Nursery, the Agroforestry Research Trust and Manse Organics, I’m sure from other places too. You could also buy the seeds from the Agroforestry Research Trust and grow them yourself, a fascinating and exciting project.
There are also species that are related to the walnut that show great promise for temperate climes. These include the heartnut (which has shells the insides of which look like little flowforms, nature at its pattern-forming best) the butternut and a hybrid between the two, the buartnut (lousy name, great tree). The Heartnut in particular is from northern Japan, which has far colder winters than here, which makes it more suitable than the English Walnut (*Juglans regia*), which dislikes cold winters. These again are avaiable from the Agroforestry Research Trust
Walnuts can be planted alone, as orchards, as food forests. They are not very accommodating of other trees grown close by (due to unfriendly root secretions, aka. ‘allelopathy’), but they are used in agroforestry with crops grown between rows of walnuts. The trees along our streets could be walnuts, our farms should contain stands of walnuts, those with large gardens should have at least one. Breeding varieties of walnuts that will reliably fruit in a range of climes strikes me as one of the most noble occupations anyone could undertake. It is interesting also to note that walnut is the Bach Flower remedy for change, so in more ways that one we need walnuts around us for the transitionary times we are entering.