I say “our” walnut tree but, really, we are just its current guardians. When we arrived in our present home in 1985 a tree surgeon told us that the tree was then around 150 years old, so that it was probably a young sapling when the Blue and the Grey were waging Civil War in America.
One of the joys of having such a tree is that it is an indicator of the passing seasons. The walnut is one of the last trees to come into leaf in the spring and when the new leaves emerge they are pink-tinged and remind me of the colours of a Cox’s Orange Pippin apple. The aromatic scent when the leaves are gently pressed between the fingers is a delight – a shame that some avant garde perfumer hasn’t turned them into scent. But as we all know, the scents of nature are very rarely captured in a bottle.
The leaves do not remain this gorgeous colour for very long, a couple of weeks at most and then, like the vast majority of trees, the leaves turn green.
What is wonderful about having such a tree is not only the welcome shade we receive from its branches and leaves in the summer – we would certainly not be able to sit outside in the heat of the day without it – but that it is also a haven for wildlife, if you don’t mind that wildlife being mainly grey squirrels and pigeons!
As spring turns to summer, changes also take place in the tree. Catkin-like flowers appear and as they fall, the fruits begin to develop, tiny walnuts. The amount of catkins that we sweep up is a good indication the forthcoming havest – more catkins, more nuts. Some years we’ve had as much as 30 to 40 pounds of walnuts, others hardly sufficient to fill a small paper bag.
In June, there is what is known as “the June drop” when the tree sheds some of the small walnuts in order for the others to mature.
As summer progresses, the walnuts grow …
It is now that Mr Squirrel can be seen bounding up and down the tree, often chattering (my husband recently mimicked the noise and, to his surprise, a squirrel came down from the tree and looked directly at him as if to say, “You speaking to me?”) and then burying his precious finds in the garden, in pots or even in the grassy bank at the front of our house.
I know many people regard the grey squirrel as a pest, as vermin, but we don’t mind them. We like to think that it’s only one squirrel family, Mr and Mrs Nutter and their children, but no doubt the ones we now see are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the squirrel who we first saw here more than 30 years ago.
As the nuts fall from the tree, the green husks split open and we are able to collect the nuts for drying. The only drawback, apart from the vast volume of leaves that need to be swept up and bagged in the autumn – far too many for compost for such a small garden, so they are taken to the Green Waste section of our local recycling centre – is that every part of the walnut contains a yellow dye which, if it comes into contact with anything, will leave an unmoveable stain. We have sometimes found this out to our cost.
After we have collected the nuts, they are laid to dry on the sitting room windowsill. We first lay black bin liners, bearing in mind that the white paint could be so easily stained, and on top of the bin liners, we spread thick layers of newspaper before placing the nuts in a single layer, turning them regularly.
Drying takes a couple of weeks and then we are able to distribute them among family, friends, and neighbours, there being far too many for our own needs. I have to say, though, that a walnut straight from the tree is sweet and juicy, but not as strongly flavoured as the ones you buy in packets in the shops, or the large Californian walnuts which are available in the supermarkets at Christmas. But they are tasty and they are free and sometimes they find their way into a walnut cake!
(Sorry, I’ve cheated here! These are commercially grown walnuts – as I say, our walnuts are small and not as strongly flavoured as commercially grown ones.)
We are now waiting for the walnuts to fall, what I call the “nuttage” , and our collecting will begin. If Mr and Mrs Nutter have left us any.