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Juglans nigra (black walnut)

A North American tree with dark-coloured timber and bark, black walnut produces timber and edible nuts (seeds) used in confectionery.

Juglans nigra at Kew Gardens

Juglans nigra at Kew Gardens

Species information

Scientific name: 

Juglans nigra L.

Common name: 

black walnut, American walnut

Conservation status: 

Not assessed according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Mixed woodland.

Key Uses: 

Timber, edible seeds, ornamental.

Known hazards: 

See below.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Rosanae
Order: 
Fagales
Family: 
Juglandaceae
Genus: Juglans

About this species

Black walnut gets its name from both its dark timber and dark brown to black bark. All walnut trees (Juglans species) produce edible seeds (known commonly as nuts), but those of black walnut are notoriously difficult to extract from their husks; it is the common walnut, Juglans regia, that is cultivated commercially for its nuts.

The leaves, bark and fruits of black walnut contain juglone, a red crystalline compound, which is known to be active against tobacco mosaic virus (a virus that causes an infectious disease in crops such as tobacco and tomatoes). When rubbed, the leaves of black walnut give off a strong aroma that most people find pleasant.

Medicinal Uses

Black walnut was used medicinally by Native Americans to treat skin conditions, psychological illness and miscellaneous diseases.

Synonym: 

Wallia nigra (L.) Alef.

Genus: 
Juglans

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Black walnut is native to North America, where it is found in central and eastern USA (as far west as Texas and South Dakota) and eastern Canada, at up to 1,000 m above sea level. It is also naturalised in Central Europe.

Description

A tree up to 50 m tall, black walnut has dark brown to black bark that is deeply split into narrow, rough ridges. This rapidly growing tree has a tall, straight trunk and a wide, spreading head. The pith (spongy tissue inside the twigs) is light brown and contains air chambers. Leaves are up to 60 cm long and are each divided into 9–23 leaflets with toothed margins and pointed tips. In contrast to the common walnut (Juglans regia), the terminal or end leaflet is usually small or missing.

Image of fruits of Juglans nigra

Fruits of Juglans nigra

Black walnut is monoecious, meaning that separate male and female flowers both grow on the same tree. Male catkins are 5–10 cm long and have 17–50 stamens (pollen bearing organs) per flower. Female flowers are borne on the end of stalks and once fertilised form fruits that ripen in October. Fruits are surrounded by a green, fleshy cover, are more or less spherical up to 8 cm in diameter and contain an almost spherical nut bearing deep, longitudinal grooves.

Uses

Black walnut timber is highly valued for its strength, density and ability to split without splintering. The dark heartwood has been used to make furniture, coffins and gunstocks (the wooden support to which the gun barrel is attached). During the First World War it was used to make aeroplane propellers.

Seeds are used in confectionery in North America, where they are prized for their aromatic, distinctive flavour.

Popular as a landscape tree for planting in open spaces, black walnut is particularly suitable for avenue plantings. It was introduced to Europe in the early 17th century and is now widely cultivated as an ornamental.

Known hazards

Roots of black walnut produce substances that appear to have toxic effects on a variety of plants, such as apples, some pines and Potentilla species, and hence these should not be planted near black walnuts.

Black walnut wood shavings in horse bedding have been reported to cause laminitis (a condition causing pain in the hooves of horses) in the USA.

This species at Kew

Image of Juglans nigra at Kew

Juglans nigra at Kew Gardens

A large black walnut can be seen growing at the south end of the Plant Family Beds at Kew.

Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of Juglans nigra are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

Specimens of the wood and nuts of black walnut, as well as a wooden bowl made from this species, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Nutshell whistles made from black walnut can be seen on display in the Plants and People exhibition in Museum No. 1.

Kew at the British Museum - North American Landscape

Black walnut (Juglans nigra) was one of the 12 star plants featured in the 2012 North American Landscape - the fifth in the series created by Kew for the British Museum’s West Lawn.

North American plants have global ecological and economic importance and have been utilised by native peoples for thousands of years. Many were introduced to Europe following the colonisation of North America in the early 1600s. Grown for their medicinal uses, as food crops and for other economic purposes, some species have also become familiar ornamental garden plants.

The landscape was designed to evolve throughout the seasons - from a carpet of colourful daisies in the summer to spectacular orange and red maple leaves in the autumn. Other plantings included cypress, echinacea and carnivorous pitcher plants.

References and credits

Bruneton, J. (1999). Toxic Plants Dangerous to Humans and Animals. Lavoisier Publishing, Paris.

Flora of North America Editorial Committee (eds) (1993). Juglans nigraAvailable online (accessed 23 April 2012).

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1997). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Volume 2 (D to K). Macmillan Reference, London.

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. Third edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

The Plant List (2010). Juglans nigra. Available online (accessed 23 April 2012).

Kew Science Editor: Emma Tredwell
Kew contributors: Sven Landrein
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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