If you’ve ever spent much time at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve, you might have noticed it’s an excellent spot to observe squirrel behavior and how it changes with the seasons. At the moment, they are all very busy eating, gathering and storing a nutritionally perfect food for themselves – the evidence of it, black walnuts, staining their faces and front paws.
Watching a squirrel darting around the grounds, burying black walnuts seems like a random process, but they have excellent spatial memory. Sense of smell also comes into play, but this doesn’t help them when the ground is covered in a layer of snow. Unlike mice, who are larder hoarders (storing large amounts of food in one place), squirrels scatter hoard (storing nuts individually). It seems like this would make it harder and more complicated to find your food later, but they are able to locate an estimated 95% of their stash!
Black walnuts are an ideal food source for humans too. They were important in the diet of Ohio’s prehistoric Archaic people, and even grown by the Woodland cultures who followed them. Protein provided by nuts may have meant survival to these seasonally nomadic groups.
In fact, black walnuts have the highest level of protein of any tree nut. Eating them can also provide you with plenty of vitamin A, iron, minerals and fiber. They contain higher levels of antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids and other health-promoting compounds than the more common English walnuts.
The drawback is that it takes a lot of work to get those health benefits. The green hull, turning dark brown when ready, stains everything brown when it’s removed. This is great if you’re tie-dyeing with it, but not great if you’ve accidently worn your favorite shirt when you’re processing them. Plan on having stained hands for about a week too, unless you wear thick, impermeable gloves.
While the hard shell that encases the nut meat is not a problem for squirrel teeth, humans must use something strong enough to crack the shell, but not so powerful that it obliterates the prize inside. There are special crackers for black walnuts, but a vice works pretty well. Although I enjoy their bold, earthy flavor, many people do not. In fact, some claim they taste too “iron-y.” Black walnuts seem to be in the same taste preference category as cilantro – you either love it or hate it. You’ll just have to try them and decide for yourself.
Education Manager, Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve