The Walnut Tree
'Rub an English walnut leaf between your fingers and it releases an exquisite perfume. Some say the smell is reminiscent of furniture polish, but I think it’s woodier, a pure essence of tree. The scent comes from an aromatic chemical called juglone, unique to walnut trees.
While the ancient Greeks thought the tree’s wrinkled nuts looked like brains and called them “karyon” or “heads”, the Romans had a lower body part in mind. They dedicated the tree to Jupiter and named its produce “glands of Jupiter”, shortened to juglans; literally “Jupiter’s nuts”.
In August, the developing seeds are still soft and white, encased in skins speckled with cream dots and lightly furred with tiny hairs. They often form bulging, egg-shaped pairs, fixed to twig ends.
It was the Romans who brought the English walnut (Juglans regia) – a species that actually originated in Persia – to Britain, and in 1629, the plant collector John Tradescant the Younger brought the black walnut (Juglans nigra) here from north America. Black walnut leaves are less aromatic. The swirl-grained wood of both species became fashionable for furniture making and musket stocks in the 1600s and walnuts were planted widely in the centuries that followed.
The trees were a valuable community resource. The nuts came to symbolise riches and were used as charms to increase wealth. Because their roots secrete juglone, which can inhibit crop growth, they were grown on uncultivated ground along road verges and on village greens. The tradition of wayside walnuts still flourishes in parts of England’s south and west.'
By Sara Hudston, adapted from Country Diary, The Guardian, 15.08.2020