Saturday, October 20, 2012

Carpathian Walnut Trees

Whoever wrote “Here we go gathering nuts in May” must have been nuts!  Late October is when we expect to collect nuts.  When I mentioned my Carpathian walnut tree in my last column, several readers wanted to know more about it, but first I’d like to tell you a bit about the yellow-bellied sapsuckers who have drilled rows and rows of holes in our tree as they searched for insects and sap. 

Despite the fact that my tree is riddled with these holes, I have never heard a sapsucker drilling rows of holes on a limb, much less seen one of these yellow-bellied woodpeckers. From what I’ve read, they usually pick on birches or maples, so I don’t think they are normally a problem with walnut trees.

Our tree produced a bushel or more of nuts every other year from 1978 until about 2002.  I think a tree yielding a harvest of nuts for close to thirty years could be considered a success so I would recommend planting one.

The Carpathian walnut, as you might guess, originated in the Carpathian Mountains of Italy, and consequently can tolerate the freezing temperatures we who live in the Icebox of Connecticut often shiver through in the winter.  Its nuts are as delicious as those of English walnuts, which cannot survive freezing temperatures.  

We bought our little seedling from Jung’s Nurseries in Randolph, Wisconsin in 1972.  Getting this unusual tree was Hank’s idea, and when I saw the pathetic looking twig he unwrapped, I couldn’t help but tease him a little.

“By the time that poor stick produces nuts enough for a Waldorf salad, you’ll be gumming it!” I laughed as we dug the hole. We planted it at the edge of the big meadow, and planned to mow under it each October so the nuts would be easy to find.

We didn’t need to mow for six years, but finally one May we were thrilled to spy blossoms.  Hank rushed to get the lawn mower, and waved the recipe for Waldorf salad in my face.  Come fall, however, there were no nuts. Discouraged, we got out the tree book and learned that the blossoms had all been males.  Not until the following year would we get both male and female blooms and be able to harvest our first crop. From then on we could expect a really good harvest every other year and a slim one in the off years.

When walnuts ripen properly they fall out of their casings to the ground, but if there’s a high wind or rain at the wrong time, they may be blown off the tree with their husks still intact.  When that happens, the husks must be pulled off so the nuts can dry out.

Fresh off the tree, the nuts are too moist to eat and should be stored in a warm dry place for a month or more.  If you can’t wait, you can zap a few in the microwave to hurry the drying process.

The Carpathian’s shape is not especially attractive compared to the other trees on Locust Hill.  It has a fat circle of greenery atop a short but sturdy trunk. The leaves are large and provide dense shade in summer, but each fall when other deciduous trees have turned gold or crimson, these leaves turn an ugly brown and make the lawn look as if some mechanic’s oily rags had escaped from the clothesline.

We’ve often parked the car under the walnut on hot summer days as it’s just opposite the front door. A month ago I did just that, parked my little Miata in its shade. I guess I should have known better as the tree is obviously dying.  The trunk has lost great hunks of bark and the limbs are so full of woodpecker holes they resemble a cribbage board.

Around four o’clock that day a brief but very windy rain darkened the world and when I heard a large crack I looked out the window.  One of the largest and highest limbs had broke off and crashed down, missing the Miata by about a foot.

I wish I’d thought to take a picture of this miracle.  There’s no way my little convertible could have survived had that enormous limb landed on it.  At least the extension cord for my chain saw was long enough to reach it, and a nice little pile of next year’s firewood is now stacked up in the long shed.

I just googled the Carpathian on the Internet and found many nurseries that carry it, so don’t let the sapsuckers discourage you from buying one.  We not only enjoyed  Waldorf salad with our walnuts frequently, but also many batches of brownies. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Why Leaves Turn

I’ve just finished reading descriptions of what goes on inside a leaf at the end of summer – dying cells, clogged arteries,  altered chemical.  Who wants to hear about the complicated inner workings of a tree’s foliage that go on to produce the autumn spectacular?  It makes the process sound as if trees were going through the menopause, their flaming colors the result of severe hot flashes.

Every morning I look across at Canaan Mountain, wondering when it will don its cloak of many colors.  What is it waiting for anyway?  Actually, it is waiting for cool nights.  Not killer frosts, which many people think are needed to produce the gold and crimson autumn colors, just temperatures that have dipped down into the 40s. A lot of different elements go into making Mother

Cool nights are what stop the corky layer between leaf stems and branches that develops to blows the whistle on food production.  The trees may like a few extra weeks of good green chlorophyll, but that green is so strong it covers up the yellow pigments, carotene and xanthophylls which are waiting eagerly to turn the woods and roadsides into shimmering gold.

The scarlet and purple pigments, anthocyanins, require high light intensities and high sugar content for their development, so they, too, need bright sunny days and cold nights.   These pigments will turn a sun-drenched (and sad to say, salt-drenched) roadside maple into a flaming orange torch. The woodland maples, who’ve been unable to trap sufficient sugar in their leaves, however, will turn a soft butter yellow.

Jack Frost is not responsible for the autumn extravaganza.  He’s the culprit who puts an end to the show by filling the woody fibers that hold the leaves to the twigs with ice crystals so that they break. If his timing is poor, Jack can ruin the entire performance, forcing the leaves to drop before they’ve had a chance to show off their colorful costumes. 

Autumn turns the dowdy, shapeless sumacs into raspberry-robed partygoers, but makes the vibrant green apple tree look more dingy than a derelict. It decorates the delicate birches with a thousand gold coins, and eventually replaces them with copper ones. 

An ash tree keeps its golden crown for only a few days, but a beech will hold its fluttering leaves, as pale as winter sunlight, until wind and snow finally tear them away.  The oaks cling to their leaves even more tenaciously.  Red oaks deepen to a beautiful burgundy, but the white oaks merely fade to brown with oxidation, the same way the flesh of an apple does when exposed to the air.

Locust Hill has no trees that become really colorful each fall.  The photo of my sugar maple at the start of this column was taken years ago.  This is what it looks like now.   And the Carpathian Walnut tree beside it. riddled with sapsucker holes, always has ugly brown leaves by October.  Even Canaan Mountain’s autumn colors are not worth a photo this year.    I hope, unlike me,  you’re surrounded by gold and scarlet trees. 

Why the Leaves Turn