We are talking about Juglans nigra here - Black Walnut. Similar to the familiar edible walnut that we all remember from Christmas (Juglans regia) but more ornamental - it has much longer leaves, with more leaflets on them, giving the tree a much prettier aspect. The books often mention "aromatic foliage" as well, but I'm not convinced about that.
As an aside, I have to tell you that up until this year, I had always thought that ornamental Walnuts did not bear edible fruit, and were only planted for their foliage. Apparently - with thanks to Wikipedia - that is not the case, and the nuts are indeed edible, if somewhat stronger-tasting than "normal" walnuts. Sadly, I'm not all that keen on ordinary walnuts, otherwise I would be bringing them home by the barrowload from the large Black Walnut tree in one of my clients' garden... but as it is, this is the time of year when I spend quite a lot of time working under the tree.
Why, you ask? Well, the path to Compost Corner runs under the walnut tree, and once the fruits start to drop, it's a constant battle to remove the little ankle-snappers before I come a cropper on them.
(Note: "to come a cropper" is a technical gardening term involving tripping over obstacles, unseen due to pushing a laden wheelbarrow. At worst, it involves landing head-first in the contents of the wheelbarrow.)
So where does the weirdness come in?
Well, firstly, this looked as though it were going to be a really poor year for walnut fruits - last time I looked, there were leaves a-plenty but no fruit to be seen. "Oh dear," I thought, insincerely, "what a shame, no ankle-snappers this year."
Then, last week, I walked out towards Compost Corner for the first time that morning, and noticed a sour smell on the air - oh no, not walnuts? Yes, the ground was suddenly covered in fallen fruits:
Here is the path to the compost bins, liberally strewn with walnut fruits in their green husks.
They are very much the size of tennis balls, but not as soft: so just imagine trying to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow along a path with dozens of tennis balls rolling about on it.
When this happens, the only thing to do is to carefully make my way to the compost bins and unload, then work backwards along the path picking up the darn things and lobbing them into the wheelbarrow. The first few make loud clanging noises - they are rock hard, unlike tennis balls - but once it's part full, the job gets rather quieter. Then I go to my special walnut tip, round the back of the compost bins, and turn them out. Then back for another load. And so on.
The husks soon go brown and rot away, but of course there are shells inside!
Interestingly, Walnut has a reputation for poisoning the soil around it, and although this is a wild exaggeration (it was waist-high in Cow Parsley last year, for a start), it is true that the roots and leaves all contain a chemical called Juglone, which can affect the growth of certain plants, notably tomatoes ( I shall be doing an experiment on that next summer) and, for some reason, Silver Birch.
It is certainly true that no weeds are growing on my Walnut Heap, but I don't know if that is due to Juglone poisoning, or just the fact that few wind-blown seeds can get to the Heap, as it's somewhat under the trees, combined with the sheer density of the layer of walnuts that I add to it each year.
So, back to the weirdness - first there were none on the tree, then hundreds of them on the ground - then I found this clump:
The books say that Black Walnut sets fruit in groups of one to five, so it's not really that peculiar, but you don't often find them welded together in this manner.
As I was picking up these fruits, there was a whistling sound and a hefty thump close by - yes, they are still dropping. I hate to think how painful it would be to have a quartet like this dropping on my head!
The next weird Walnut was this strange siamese-twin of a thing - presumably where two fruits had fused together early on in their development.
I took it home to take a closer photo, and as you can see, the husk is already starting to rot away.
Apparently this ruins the flavour of the nut, though: you have to get them out of the husks while they are still fresh, if you want to eat them.
And the final instalment on the weirdness quota was when, after clearing away three barrow-loads of fruit, I looked up into the branches of the tree, to see dozens more of the little rascals still hanging up there.
Which means I will be doing all this again, next week!