Skip to main content

Indigenous Peoples' Perspective Project

Black Walnut

Scientific Name: Juglans nigra

Common Name: Black walnut, eastern American black walnut

Plant Family: Juglandaceae (Walnut family)

Etymology: Juglans comes from the Latin name jovis, meaning “of Jupiter,” and glans meaning “an acorn.” Specific epithet means “black,” in reference to the dark bark and nut.

Parts Used: leaves, nuts, bark, wood, sap

Season: spring, summer, fall

Indigenous Uses

As a food, indigenous peoples mixed the crushed nuts in breads and puddings. The nut meats were also an important ingredient in corn soups and several other traditional native dishes. The fresh nuts would be crushed and boiled to make a beverage. The bark was used cautiously in medicine because it is poisonous. It was chewed for toothache and made into a decoction as an emetic, to get rid of bile, and as a laxative. The bark of charred twigs and old bark from the trunk was mixed with water and used as a remedy for snakebites. An inner bark infusion was used for smallpox. A tea from the leaves treated goiter and was used to wash sores. A poultice from the leaves and crushed hulls of the nuts for topical applications to remove ringworm, treat athlete’s foot, and hemorrhoids. The sap of black walnut was used externally as an anti-inflammatory. Black walnut supported a range of craftwork that used the wood for construction, furniture, and carving; the bark, roots, and husks for brown dye; the leaves for greenish dye; the nut to make brown and black dyes; the crushed nuts mixed with bear grease to make a mosquito repellent; and the leaves placed around a living space to deter fleas. In slow waters the green husks of black walnuts were used as a fish poison to stun fish for harvest.

Edible Parts

Harvest black walnuts as soon as they have fallen and remove the hulls within a couple days of gathering. Remove the hulls by stomping on them, or pound with a hammer, brick, or small log. Once hulled, dry the nuts in their shells for a month or longer in a space with good air circulation. Crack the shells with a strong nutcracker or hammer, and pick out the nutmeat. Use in baking, beverages, soups, and any dish lending itself to culinary creativity.

Unripe black walnuts can be pickled while the shell is still soft to produce an aged condiment, similar to Worcestershire sauce. They can be leached and fermented to produce a ketchup. Or they can be steeped in vodka to produce a nocello liqueur.

To preserve, dry fresh nutmeat for a day or two before refrigerating in a moisture-proof container. Or freeze in jars for two or more years. 

This project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities, with funding received from the Maryland Historical Trust in the Maryland Department of Planning. Maryland Humanities’ Grants Program is also supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private funders. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed on this website do not necessarily represent those of Maryland Humanities, Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Department of Planning, or National Endowment for the Humanities.