Many mid-Missourians know the Eastern black walnut by those large, green balls with a slightly pungent aroma that litter lawns and sidewalks this time of year. Encased in their protective husks is an inner shell that makes even the heartiest squirrel think twice, giving this cousin of the more popular English walnut the reputation of being a tough nut to crack.
Researchers at MU’s Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin are hoping to change this. While black walnut connoisseurs are willing to put in the extra effort to get at the fruit’s strong, flavorful nutmeat, researchers at the center hope to boost the black walnut’s commercial prospects by improving the characteristics of Missouri’s state tree nut.
Two years ago, the center started the nation’s only nut-centered black walnut breeding program. One of the main goals of the program is to identify and reproduce black walnut varieties with favorable traits, such as a thinner shell. Mark Coggeshall, a tree improvement specialist for the research center, heads the breeding program and related germplasm repository. Although other breeding programs around the country focus on improving the black walnut’s timber quality, Coggeshall said the research center’s breeding program is unique because of its focus on the quality of the nut.
“Historically, black walnut, as a species, has been prized for its timber value, not its nuts. In this state, it winds up that there is very much an interest in the nut value versus the timber,” Coggeshall said.
Part two: Creating an appealing nut