Monday, November 28, 2022

Walnut Trees

After a recent conversation with one of my readers I was interested in learning more about the most important tree growing in Missouri. Walnut trees have been around since the Pleistocene period. For more than 17,000 years man has utilized walnut trees as a food source. We can assume primitive man was aware the nut meat of walnuts was high in fatty oils and tasted good too. As far back as 7,000 years ago the earliest known cultivated varieties of walnuts began appearing and contained more nut meats within each hull. Archaeologists unearthed evidence of walnuts among other food items at a table in Pompeii at the Temple of Isis. This remnant of one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike humankind gives us a glimpse into the personal life of those living in the volcano ravished city and what their diet must have been like. One of the most common cultivated walnuts consumed by people is the English walnut and is believed to have come from Persia and was strictly reserved for royalty. The scientific name of Juglans regia literally translates to “Royal nut of Jupiter” The Romans referred to them as Jupiter’s royal acorn and were consumed only by royalty. Fast forward to more modern times and we learn that black walnuts produce a dye that early pioneers used to color cloth. During World War II gas mask filters were made from activated charcoal created from dried and pulverized husks of walnuts. Explosive manufacturers use dried walnut shells as a filler in dynamite. Even Native Americans valued walnuts and used the nut meats in baking and created diuretics with the inner bark of the tree. Want to repel insect from your home? Scatter the leaves of black walnuts around your home. The pungent smell is reported to discourage insects from sharing your space. With this brief glimpse into the past, we can begin to put a picture together of just how historically important walnuts have been to humans.

Worldwide there are twenty-one known species of walnut trees, and in Missouri the most common are the Black Walnut, Butternut and English Walnut. Of the three the Black walnut and butternut are native to our state. The English walnut is grown predominantly for food and is not known to be invasive or to spread out of areas where it is grown. At the turn of twentieth century Missouri was a leading timber producing state, with the 1909 being the peak of production. By 1910 nearly all trees large enough for logging had been cut. By 1920 there were no more large trees remaining that were suitable for logging and regeneration efforts began in earnest. Currently Missouri has fourteen million acres of forest land and ranks seventh out of twenty states in the Northeast in the amount of forested areas. Eighty-five percent of that land is privately owned, twelve percent is owned by the Federal government; predominantly in the Mark Twain National Forest, the remaining three percent is owned by state and local governments. One of the most common trees within these timber areas is the black walnut. Currently Missouri is the top producer of black walnut, and the nut is recognized as our state nut. Black walnuts, while loved by many for their nut meat can be a bit of a challenge to hull. Their outer shells are much thicker and harder than the English walnut making it a bit more difficult to get to the tasty treat inside. The nut has a stronger taste than its English counterpart and typically produces less nut meat per nut. Black walnut trees however are highly prized Worldwide for their durability and beauty. Because black walnut is a hardwood with a dense tight-grained appearance that polishes to a smooth finish, it is highly sought after worldwide in furniture making, fence building, woodwork in homes and for barns. Gun manufacturers have also traditionally used walnut for gun stocks. While other woods are also utilized, walnut is generally considered the premium wood for gun stocks. This in large part is due to the resilience to compression along the grain of the wood making it a sturdy (and beautiful) choice for guns. 

In Missouri walnuts are more common in the Northern regions and typically grow along creek beds, riverbanks, and forest edges. They may reach heights up to one hundred and thirty feet and grow strong straight trunks with high branching foliage, making them a canopy tree. They are a light loving tree and grow better in sunlit areas sheltered from high winds. Walnut trees are usually drought tolerant and maybe this is due in large part to their long root systems and preferred growing habitats near water sources. Flowering takes place in early spring with male catkins developing from leafless shoots from the previous year. Female flowers appear in a cluster at the peak of the current years’ leafy shoots. It takes from between 7 to 15 years for the tree to produce the signature walnut. Once nut production starts, they will produce nuts each year with peak nut production beginning at about 20 years of age. Like all nut producing trees, there are boom and bust years. Walnuts may go two or three years with little nut production, then have one or two abundant years, before giving way to leaner years once again. This cycle will repeat itself throughout the tree’s life. Want to increase productivity of your walnut tree? Tradition says you should beat your tree with a stick. This will remove any dead limbs and encourage the stimulation of new shoot formations. I am not sure what your neighbors will think, and the recoil might be a bit much, but who knows maybe it will work.

These ancient trees are arguably one of the most important trees growing in our landscape. From prized lumber, tasty nuts, medicinal qualities, shade, and food for wildlife the walnut tree is truly a tree fit for royalty!

Friday, November 4, 2022

North American Bison


Saturday, November 5th, 2022 is National Bison Day, and each year since 2013, the first Saturday of November has been set aside to raise awareness of and to celebrate the largest land animal in the United States. In 2016, President Obama designated and signed into legislation the North American Bison as our national mammal. I can think of no other mammal more deserving of this honor. Their history is steeped in lore, tragedy and legend. 

Bison arrived on our continent approximately 195,000 to 135,000 years ago during the middle Pleistocene period. They descended from the Siberian steppe bison, who in turn descended from other prehistoric bison-like animals. These herbivores roamed in large herds across the vast great plains of our nation for thousands of years. Early man evolved with the bison and depended greatly on all the bison provided, including meat, fur, hide, bones, and sinew. Nothing was wasted. By the 1700’s it was estimated bison herds exceeded thirty million in number. These historically large herds of bison fed on sedges, grasses and other plants in the prairies and woodlands, scattered all across the Great Plains. 

They created large wallows by rolling around on the ground in dry dusty soil. These wallows served to rid the bison of shedding fur, and to help eliminate parasites as well as to relieve itchy skin. During mating season reproductive males will urinate in the wallows prior to rolling in it. This coats their skin in aromatic bodily fluids that advertise their dominance, and virility. These wallows serve an important ecological role in the prairie ecosystems. The shallow depressions of the wallows hold water and create shallow pools for invertebrates and small mammals to drink from. The action of rolling in these wallows also compress the soil and allow many plants to seed and develop. Some ancient wallows can still be spotted by airplanes flying over the great plains. As the plant life that developed within the wallows is a different color than the plants surrounding it. 



Nomadic by nature they migrated in vast numbers following food sources. The many Indigenous tribes that depended so much on the bison for survival developed nomadic ways of life alongside the bison. These native peoples followed the herds to summer foraging grounds, where hunting parties would harvest what their people needed to survive the long winters ahead. Most tribes honored the bison for all it provided with celebratory ceremonies consisting of dancing and feasting. 

By the1800’s and with an increase in hostility towards native peoples the bison became the target along with the Indigenous people themselves. Reasons varied for the slaughter of these large beasts, but no one argues the main reason was to subdue the Indigenous nations who depended on them. Other reasons were to provide meat for a growing army and population of civilians, and for the value of the hide and fur. Europeans and settlers of the west also wanted to fence off the land and raise cattle, so by removing the bison they could accomplish this goal. Crow chief, Plenty Coups said of the massacre of the bison “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again.” Most native people believed the bison would never go away because they had always been, how could they be no more? With the loss of the bison, there was also spiritual loss among the Indigenous people who were dependent upon them for their survival as well as spiritual well-being. The height of the slaughter was during the 1870’s and by 1889 it was estimated there were only 540 wild bison left in the United States.

In the early 1900’s awareness of what we would lose as a nation began to sink in and campaigns were adopted to save the bison. William Hornaday a naturalist during the 1800’s spent time out west among the bison and plains tribes both before and after the near extinction the iconic animal. He commented “It would have been as easy to count or estimate the leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870.”

It is estimated there are 500,000 bison living in the United States today, with most of them in confinement being raised for meat, fur, hides and dairy products. Of the 500,000 only 15,000 or so reside in national parks and very few are considered truly wild. Yellowstone National Park holds the claim to the only true wild herd in our country. Nearly 5,000 bison live in the park and through DNA testing were revealed to be the descendants of the twenty-four known bison that were able to take refuge there during the height of the massacre in the mid 1800’s. With such a large population of bison in the park and with their wondering, migratory instincts many leave the refuge of the park and conflicts arise with ranchers and landowners. Will the bison ever truly be free to roam?

During the 1800’s some Europeans tried to domesticate the bison for meat and other resources. They soon found these animals are difficult to contain. They could jump six feet vertically, run at speeds up to 65 MPH when agitated and run through fencing, even if made of razor wire. Males weigh around 2,000 pounds and stand roughly six feet at the shoulders and are formidable when angry, females are smaller, at about 1,000 pounds, but still strong and capable of inflicting great harm to humans. With the turn of the 20th century and better fencing systems and a better understanding of the bison in general it has been easier to keep them in confinement, but they are still not without their challenges. In the wild, bison may live up to fifteen years, and in captivity they are capable of living twenty-five years. Females form maternal herds with other females and their calves. Males remain in the maternity herds until they are three years old at which time they leave and remain on their own or form small bachelor herds. Occasionally old males will be found with the maternity herds. The only time males and females intermingle is during breeding season. Typically, bison, because of their size, temperament, speed, and strength are safe from predation. Wolves are the exception. Late winter signals the southward migration of elk, and food sources for the wolves are scarce, and this is when they turn their hunting skills to the bison. Herds are weakened by heavy snowfall, and reduced availability of food. This makes it easier for wolves to cull the sick, dying, injured or very young bison in a herd.

Over recent years we have heard about or read about many human, bison conflicts, mostly in National Parks. People mistakenly think because these animals are so large and cumbersome looking that they pose no real threat to their personal safety. This is a huge error in judgement. Bison are territorial and quick to react to a perceived threat and can easily outrun and overpower a human. Bisons attack dozens of people annually and some pay for their mistake with their lives. There is nothing quite so awe inspiring as visiting a National Park and witnessing the bison freely roaming within easy viewing. These heart pounding encounters are sure to leave an impression! However, tempting it may be, please give them their space and do not attempt to pet the fluffy cows. 

This coming Saturday take a moment to reflect on our national mammal, the bison, on a day set aside just for it and all it represents to our great nation.