A BRIEF HISTORY OF OREGON BLACK WALNUT
When I started working at Goby, I didn’t know that Oregon Black walnut even existed. I thought that walnut wood came from walnut trees, and that was it. I didn’t know the difference between Eastern black walnut, English walnut, Claro walnut, Oregon Black walnut, Bastogne walnut, and so on. I learned quickly, though. And now? I could tell you what kind of walnut you have by the way the sawdust tastes (which I don’t recommend doing, by the way). Still, I see a lot of confusion when people come into the store, looking for that traditional chocolate brown color most folks associate with black walnut, and see a whole color palette before them- purples, reds, oranges and grays- so today, I want to help lift that fog by talking a bit about the history of how walnut showed up on the West coast, and why it looks so different from “traditional” black walnut.
To start, let’s establish what’s what:
This is English walnut, or juglans regia. English walnut was brought to America from Europe in the early 1700’s, first making landfall on the East coast with settlers and eventually making its’ way westward. English walnut actually originates from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, which is why it’s sometimes known as “Persian walnut”. English walnut tends toward light and dark brown and tan colors, with distinctive dark grain lines throughout. Whenever you eat a walnut you bought from the supermarket, chances are good that it came from an English walnut tree. Back around the turn of the century, English walnut branches were usually grafted onto Claro walnut tree stumps in California and Oregon, in order to “jump start” a walnut orchard- the English would grow and fruit about twice as fast as the Claro walnut rootstock, and yield a bigger-sized nut.
Eastern black walnut, or juglans nigra, is native to the eastern half of North America and Western Europe. The heartwood is typically a rich, chocolate brown, with some purple tones throughout. For centuries, black walnut has been the woodworker’s top choice- easy to work, durable, and in no need of a stain. The indigenous people of North America have been using black walnuts as a food source and a dye for centuries.
Bastogne walnut (juglans x paradox) is a hybrid tree; a cross between English and Claro walnut, it was first attempted by Luther Burbank in the 1890’s to achieve a superior walnut, without all the hassle of grafting. The product was a tree that grew faster than either of its predecessors, with harder wood inside- unfortunately, the new tree was also sterile and produced little to no nuts. Bastogne walnut trees could be found in walnut groves, as naturally occurring offshoots of English and black walnut trees cross-pollinating. The lumber inside has traits from both parents; the heartwood has a rich, reddish-orange brown color like Claro, with smoky dark grain lines like an English. The trees are rare to find these days, and the wood inside can be highly figured.
Oregon black walnut (juglans hindsii x nigra) is a hybrid of Eastern black walnut and Claro walnut. Similar in appearance to Claro, it tends to have much more purple tones like the Eastern black walnut. It can also have streaks of gray, red, or even greenish-yellow, depending on the soil the tree grew in. When settlers came to California after the Civil War, they brought Eastern black walnut seedlings with them, establishing orchards in what are now the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, among others. As people wandered north to Oregon, so did their plants and Eastern black walnut trees began to spring up as people moved up through the Willamette Valley. The cross of Eastern black and Claro walnut proliferated throughout the valley, which is where we salvage most of our walnut today.
Hopefully this gives you a good overview of the history of all the different types of walnut we have access to here in Oregon. Because the soil here is so fertile, lots of different tree varieties can grow big and tall. Lots of rain and sunshine help as well. But sometimes trees die or need to come down. And when they do, give us a call- instead of turning it into firewood or mulch, we can make that tree into some beautiful lumber.