Black Walnuts

Growing up in Hibbing and specifically on the block I grew up on, I did not pay much attention to the large walnut tree that grew (it is still there) in Frank Pascuzzi’s backyard.  Every fall, the alley would be littered with husks from the tree’s seeds – green-husked, tennis-balled shaped-and-sized things; squirrels could be see carrying husk-less nuts in their mouths while run down the low-slung electrical wires above the alley.

My mother would yell at me, “don’t touch the husks, they’ll turn your hands black!”  I never really figured out what the big damn deal was with the husks; it is not like the husks were the walnut-equivalent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Violet Beauregarde‘s three-course-meal-chewing-gum; I wasn’t going to turn into a black-and-green-husked walnut.  My hands would just be stained for a short while.

Even with the threat of stained hands, the walnuts made fantastic weapons.  Pegging your friend (or enemy) in the head with a thing that looked like a tennis ball but felt like a baseball was awesome.

juglnigr-rangeBut, there was one thing that I did not realize until late last fall.  That the walnut tree (and now, a likely offspring of that tree growing in a yard across the alley) should not be growing in Hibbing.  This is not some political should not or a moral should not, this is more of an oddity should not.  Black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) generally can be found as far north in Minnesota as the Twin Cities.  Even then, looking at the map, walnut trees are a southern Minnesota thing.  The walnut tree in Hibbing is effectively 200 miles too far north.

As the USDA lays out on their website, “Many . . .  environmental factors, in addition to hardiness zones, contribute to the success or failure of plants. Wind, soil type, soil moisture, humidity, pollution, snow, and winter sunshine can greatly affect the survival of plants. The way plants are placed in the landscape, how they are planted, and their size and health might also influence their survival.” It is very much possible to have isolated populations – like the small patch of them, indicated on the map, in South Dakota.

Microclimates abound as do odd strains of genetics.  A tree growing in Eureka, Missouri may be a Juglans nigra, but it might not be able to survive a winter in Hibbing.  Likewise, a black walnut from Hibbing might not be able to survive the summers of east-central Missouri.

Trees and particularly fruit trees, have piqued my interest for a while; a year or two before leaving Proctor, I had planted several cherry and apple trees at that house.  Our first spring here in Saint Paul, on our acre-of-earth, we planted cherry trees, apple trees, plum trees, and a hardy peach tree.  This was in addition to the existing pear and apple trees at our place.  Adding to that list of trees, we also have several large black walnut trees, mulberry trees, hackberry trees, and dozens of understory trees, like buckthorn, lilac, and ironwood, in the forest that covers the back of our property.

In addition to the penchant for trees, I have beeing tossing around a bit of an oddball idea: buy tax forfeited property and then plant trees on it.  Minnesota’s more heavily forested counties tend to have many pieces of land available for purchase (or here).  It is a bit of a goofy idea and there are bound to be hiccups with such an idea.  None of my friends that I have run the idea past, have seemed interested or enthusiastic.  You could grow fruit trees, but there is predation by those pesky ruminants that are spread throughout the state.  Though, that is often an issue with young trees no matter what they end up bearing.

Last fall, I was looking out at the back yard, looking at the walnut trees with their clusters of tennis-ball-sized-green-husked nuts, and it occurred to me that I could grow my own trees from seeds.  Mentally, I have connected my crazy buy-tax-forfeited-land with collecting-tree-seeds-to-be-planted.

There is a proverb floating out on the Internet, often attributed to being of Chinese origins, that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.”  This could also just be metaphorical in the sense that you should do something soon rather than later.  So, with that in mind, I started to collect tree seeds.

Melissa called me a human-squirrel.  We would be in a park or at the highway rest area, and if there was a nut tree with seeds under it, I would start to gather up nuts.  I gathered walnut seeds in St. Paul, Blue Earth, Iowa City, Eureka, MO, and Racine, MN.  Unfortunately, I did not get up to Hibbing in time to gather walnut seeds there.  I branched out from walnuts and collected oak acorns, too.  Hastings, Winona, St. Paul, and Rochester, MN.  I collected bur oak, swamp white oak, white oak, and red oak seeds.

Generally, these seeds to be stratified in order for them to begin growing into trees.  Stratification is the process of chilling seeds for an extended period of time; in the real world, this is generally called winter, but for the seeds I gathered, this was the wine-chilling drawer in our refrigerator.  But before going into the shallow-freeze, I needed to get a better handle on whether the seeds were actually viable enough to be likely to grow.

That’s where the float test comes into play.  In the case of the walnuts, the husks needed to be removed first.  I let the seeds sit for a few days in a cool, dry place before attempting to remove the husks.  Removing the husks involved latex gloves and serrated knife.  Once the husks had been removed, you can try the float test.  Fill a jar or tall glass with water and just place a nut in the water.  If it floats, your nut is bad.  If it sinks, you have a slightly more viable candidate-nut.  Floating means there is air trapped inside the nut.  Air in a nut is an indication that there is likely a worm in the nut.

The nuts that passed the float-test (or failed to float in the float-test) were put into ziplock bags filled with damp sawdust and placed into the refrigerator.  The length of stratification varied from 137 days for the walnuts picked up in Racine, MN, to 196 days for the Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) picked up in Rochester, MN.

We waited.  And, we waited.

 

With some of the seeds in the refrigerator for over six months, Melissa, at times, became annoyed that I had all these bags seeds and wet sawdust in there taking up space.  The bags of wet sawdust with seeds, each bag being marked with species and date of collection, stayed in the refrigerator until late March (2014), I started to catalog the seeds in a Google Doc’s spreadsheet, writing the encoded identifier on the plastic or wood markers, and then plant the seeds in small pots.  Eventually, little tiny trees began to poke through the soil. Black walnut seeds from Blue Earth, MN, were the first to nudge through to the surface.  Walnuts from Racine, MN were followed by St. Paul and Iowa City.  Eureka, MO, is the hold out; I think, though, that are one or two nuts from there are about to sprout.

Oaks, as it would seem, have a slightly different sprout-timing.  While the walnuts have been pushing up tiny trunks, an equally tiny tap-root has been pushing downward.  The oak acorns that are sprouting, are busy pushing down a tap root – their tiny trunks will be pushed skyward later.

Getting these seeds to grow seems to have relatively straightforward; next, will be getting these little trees through the summer and into the fall.  Then, I’ll start to collect nuts, again, as I travel here and there — hopefully collecting some from the trees in Hibbing.

 

Links of interest:

http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/little/

http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/index.html

Alex Jokela

programmeranalyst with a flair for horticulture // I build data tools // ♥ data // assistant-overlord of a small poultry flock