George Washington’s Black Walnuts

May 5, 2013

Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO



I discovered something interesting this morning. A better choice of words would be I stumbled over something interesting. As Poppy led me across City Park, I tripped over a bronze plaque marking the planting of a grove of nut trees in honor of George Washington’s 200th birthday by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The plaque is small and sunk into the ground and perhaps this explains how I could have walked past it hundreds if not thousands of times in the last two decades without noticing it.


There appear to be only two trees left from the original ‘grove.’ I think you can see one of the pair in the background of this photo, in the upper right hand corner.


What kind of nut trees are they? If memory serves me right I suspect they are black walnut trees. I’ll have to bring my old copy of May and Tom Watts book, “Winter Tree Finder” (Nature Study Guild 1970) with me and see if I can’t figure this out by studying the tree twigs next time I head toward the park.


Perhaps if I muck around in the grass I’ll find some nutshells that have survived the winter and this will provide the clue:'S/Plant%20Web%20Images/BlackWalnutInShell.jpg



Washington was apparently quite fond of nuts of all kinds and it has been jokingly written that if he did cut down a cherry tree, he did so to make room for a nut tree.


Washington planted a variety of walnuts at Mt. Vernon including Black, English and French. A century ago, about when this marker was placed, it was common practice for the Boy Scouts and other civic-minded groups to transplant trees grown from Washington’s original nut trees into public parks across the country.


I am struck by this discovery, this connection with what we would at first consider our distant past; touching these trees momentarily   slows time if not to a standstill, at leas our nation’s founding is no longer so far in the past. George Washington's fondness for nuts reaches out and touches on our present.


We had a postcard this week from East High School’s Constitutional Law team letting us know that they once again placed in the national competition against teams from all fifty states, this year taking third place. That this high school can compete at this level year after year, often placing in the top tier, is both a source of wonder and pride, and also something of a mystery to me. Long time readers may recall my fatherly pride a number of years ago when our daughter Sophie was on the East team when they placed first for the third year in a row.


Perhaps it is the proximity of this forgotten grove of Washington’s walnut trees, in literal sight of East High School, that by some token of spirit instills a passion for democracy into these students?


Here is another picture:


[I think that Washinton’s nut trees are on the right side of the photo, at about three o’clock. East High School would be visible if the photographer had turned about 15 degrees to the left.]


I did not intend to bore you with local events but rather meant to use these nut trees to lead us into a discussion of nuts. These likely Mt. Vernon nuts look ancient compared to the modern walnuts we now eat. These seem to be more shell than actual nut and how in the world anyone could crack them to extract the meat also strikes me as a mystery. [Wasn't Washington the fellow with wooden teeth? Perhaps the force required to crack these nutshells might have something to do with those teeth?]



Walnuts are apparently the oldest tree food eaten by man and the people who inform us of important facts like this, tell us that this walnut consumption dates back at least to 7000 BC. English walnuts originated in Persia while the Black walnut originated in eastern America. While Washington grew both, I am ever so curious as to which were planted here, assuming that the symbolism would not have been lost on those DAR girls.




At this point I could lead into a detailed discussion of the health benefits of eating nuts but fear I will sound like a broken record. Rather than do that let me pull up a few links to earlier newsletters and then make mention of one research study that is particular to walnuts rather than nuts in general.


Estruch et al’s recent RCT feeding either nuts or extra virgin olive oil, suggests that doing the former reduces ‘events’ (that means heart attacks or strokes, particularly the later) by 28% in high risk people.


Eating pistachios improves lipid profiles [in Natural Medicine Journal]:


These same nuts might improve erectile dysfunction [again in Natural Medicine Journal]:


Perhaps the first ‘newsletter’ we sent out about nuts was a dozen years ago:


The most important nut newsletter, because it contains a recipe for a gluten free chocolate nut torte, frequently garners comments, both from people aghast that I would post such an unhealthy recipe, and from people appreciative of how good it tastes:


Perhaps the newsletter most relevant when we consider the Black Walnut is one from February 2010:


The assumption had been that it was the unique combination of fats in nuts that provided the cardiovascular protection. Apparently it isn’t just the fats but the various polyphenols present in the nut that contribute to the CVD protection.


This is important when we consider these Black Walnuts that have been cultivated for foods for a much shorter period of time than the European counterparts. They still retain more taste to them, they are spunkier, and this is due to their higher phytochemical content. Unfortunately they are so difficult to shell that they are rarely used commercially. Still because of the higher chemical content one might assume they are better for you. This may not be the case.


A 2011 study worthy of our attention. PJ Fitschen et al compared the effect of eating black versus English walnuts on various cardiovascular makers. Thirty-six people were fed walnuts (the standard 30 gram per day dose that we see so often in these studies, that is about one ounce) daily for a month. As expected blood lipids improved, people didn’t gain weight and so on. Eicosapentanoic acid increased more after the English walnut consumption than the black ones. Thus apparently there is no advantage to eating the impossible to shell nuts of Washington’s day over the new walnuts we find so cheaply at Costco. Who would have thought?



Fitschen PJ, Rolfhus KR, Winfrey MR, Allen BK, Manzy M, Maher MA. Cardiovascular effects of consumption of black versus English walnuts. J Med Food. 2011 Sep;14(9):890-8. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2010.0169. Epub 2011 Apr 13.




An addendum:


Careful examination of the remaining two trees in City Park’s ‘Washington Grove’ reveal something interesting.

Only one is a nut tree, a Black walnut. The tree closest to the dedication plaque, isn’t a nut tree at all but rather a Kentucky Coffee tree. Was this a mistake or intentional?

Perhaps intentional as this description tells us:


“According to information from the University of Kentucky the earliest known use of the name "coffeetree" is found in one of George Washington's diaries from the late 1700s. He was given some seed of this species for planting at Mount Vernon. The common name coffeetree came about because Native Americans and early settlers in Kentucky brewed a hot beverage from its roasted seeds. It has also been said that the seeds were used for buttons on shirts in those early days. Early land developers promoted the term Kentucky coffeetree in order to encourage settlers to come to the "far west" (which included Kentucky at that time). Coffee, a popular beverage, was expensive and hard to find away from coastal ports. Land developers advertised Kentucky as a place where a tree grew with beans that could be roasted and brewed to make a fine coffee substitute. Although drinkable, the beverage was no substitute for coffee, and the early settlers quickly dropped it as soon as the real th


became available.” []


This is kind of entertaining, kind of akin to falsely advertising that there is ‘Free Starbucks’ in a particular neighborhood of new homes for sale. Whether the DAR ladies who planted our original Washington Grove were aware or not of this coffeetree remains a mystery.