In autumn colorful trees take center stage outdoors. Their changing leaves make me pause to admire their beauty. These sentinels signal the change of seasons. Raking their falling leaves give us something to do on the weekends, and their dropping nuts feed wildlife from squirrels to deer.
Each day the colorful fall display transitions from green to yellow to crimson. The blazing maples and oaks can make even a non-tree lover snap a photo. Flashy colors get most of the attention in the natural world. For a tree that stimulates every sense, I think the black walnut takes the top prize.
When I go outdoors it is not only the views I see, but also the scents, sounds, tastes, and textures that connect me to nature. The walnut tree delivers on every level. In dry autumns like this year, their leaves turn yellow and drop, exposing their fruit. This year the walnut trees are loaded, the ripening nuts resembling apples on an apple tree. Even a gentle breeze can cause the nuts to drop.
Against the steel roof of my barns, it sounds like gunfire and on the forest floor a gentle thud. They start out green and turn from gold to brown as the fleshy husk surrounding the nut matures. Picking up the nuts will release a dye that can stain the skin on your hands brown for a few days.
Walnuts follow an alternate bearing fruit cycle. The yield will vary each year based on the rainfall and available nutrients. Flowers require two years to develop into a nut. The every-other-year production prevents the tree from over extending its resources to produce nuts.
Walnut leaves and nuts produce a distinctive earthy, pine and citrus like smell. Rubbing the leaves and smelling the scent reminds me of furniture polish. The inner kernel of the nut has a corrugated texture that can be dried and cracked open to get the delicious nut meat.
As the leaves drop the woods become more open. Deeply furrowed and dark brown to gray-black, walnut trees’ bark stands out amongst its peers. Many people prize walnut trees for their valuable wood, to the forest they serve other critical roles.
Unlike many trees, walnuts thrive in full sun. They are often the first trees to begin growing in old fields and bottom lands, creating the partially shaded conditions required for other trees to grow. Their nuts provide a vital food source for many animals and their trunks provide shelter.
Not everyone may agree. Bushels of nuts laying on the ground can wreak havoc to lawns and lawnmower blades. Gardeners find them a nuisance. Walnuts produce a substance, juglone, which can act like a natural herbicide. Many plants including tomatoes, potatoes, lilacs and other landscape plants will not grow within 50 feet of a walnut tree.
More than once I have gone from upright to lying flat on the ground when wandering the woods. Mountain biking or hiking trails littered with walnuts can be treacherous. That kind of fall can awaken all your senses, some of them not so pleasant.