Species: Juglans regia
Related genera: Carya, Pterocarya
Names: Persian, Common or English Walnut, Walnuss, Hodu
The Persian, Common or English Walnut is a 25-35 m tall, deciduous, Old World tree native to the Balkans and regions further southeast, the Himalayas and southwest China. The largest natural forest can be found in Kyrgyzstan, most famously Arslanbob, which is the largest single natural source of Walnuts on Earth. The trees become up to 1000 years old and have been cultivated as a food source for at least 2000 years.
History and folklore: During his travels to Central Asia Alexander the Great imported Walnuts from Sogdiana to Greece and erected some of the first Walnut plantations of Europe. Hence Walnuts are also known as Gretski in Russia, literally ‘Greek’ nuts.
In Latin it was called nux Gallica, ‘Gallic nut ’, since it was found in Galatia, the Gaulish region of Anatolia. The English Walnut is derived from the Old English wealhhnutu, literally “foreign nut”.
The scientific name, Juglans regia literally means the ‘regal nut of Jupiter’, who according to Roman believe ate the nuts when he dwelt on earth. Romans also called it Jovis glans, ‘the glans of Jupiter’ (the tip of the male and female erectile organ are named after it). Walnut is commonly associated with (male) potency and fertility. Contrary in Romania the fruits were used as a contraceptive device.
According to Greek myth the Titaness Caryae was beloved by Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, who transformed her into a Walnut tree. Later the Laconians built a temple dedicated to Artemis-Caryatis. Caryatids, the famous stone pillars shaped as females, were named after her nymphs and servants. The Greek word for Walnut, karydi, is also linked to the goddess Carya, Lady of the Nut-Tree, in whose honor ecstatic dances were performed during Caryateia festival.
In Greek folklore, he who planted a Walnut tree was certain to be dead when the tree could ‘see the sea’. Similar in Flanders, the man who planted one would surely be dead by the time the tree is big (referring to the slow growth of the tree).
In medieval folklore the Walnut was used against epilepsy. It was also common to carry Walnut shells filled with little spells as a magical means of protection against the evil eye, ill will and hexes. In the language of flowers it symbolized the brain. But the tree became also a symbol of the devil: at Benevento (Italy) stood an old Walnut tree, marking a place of pagan worship. It was cut down by bishop Barbato, who built the church of Santa Maria del voto in its place. The legend tells a golden snake that was once linked to the pagan worship by the tree was molten and turned into a chalice for the Eucharist. Benevento eventually became a legendary place, similar to the legends surrounding the German Brocken, and witches were believed to have danced around the Walnut tree of Benevento.
Common uses: Walnut wood is dense and heavy, with a dark brown to sometimes nearly black heartwood and a light brown sapwood. It can show curly or weirdly shaped figures. Being one of Europe’s most precious woods and considered a substitute for tropical timber, it is commonly used in luxury interior design, furniture, as veneer and in cars. Chess pieces and gun stocks are also made from Walnut wood. Walnut burl and root wood are especially sought after.
The fruits are a high nutrient density food. In Kyrgyzstan they are also still used as a means of barter and in China single pairs of old Walnuts have been used as an investment, fetching several thousands of dollars.
Medicinal and toxicological: Walnuts are rich in essential amino acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants. Due to their high phenolic content, Walnuts may act as a cancer chemopreventive agent.
The leaves act astrigent and are used externally for cleaning and healing skin irritations, sunburns, smaller lesions, ulcers and alleviating itches. They are also a treatment for hyperhidrosis. Used internally they act digestive and anti-inflammatory. The leaves are also rich in Vitamin C. Walnut leave extracts have further shown to have positive effects on the arteries, stimulate osteogenesis and liver and kidney function, act anti-bacterial and antidiabetic.
The leaves, roots, husks and bark contain juglone, which is toxic to and inhibits growth of other plants (allelopathy) and is used as a herbicide. Juglone is also used as a dye and coloring agent for food and cosmetics. An extract of the husks acts also insecticidal, e.g. against carmine spider mites.
Photos: Wiebke Rost
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