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Walnuts and Culture

Walnuts are one of the world’s oldest foods and have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years. These nutritious nuts have been linked to love and fertility throughout history and their reputation as an aphrodisiac dates back to ancient Greece and Rome.

Roman mythology is the source of the walnut’s botanical genus name, Juglans.
According to an ancient myth, Jupiter, the king of the gods who was also known as Jove, lived on walnuts when he lived on earth. Therefore Romans called walnuts Jovis glans, meaning “the glans of Jupiter.” (Glans is the rounded tip of the penis or the erectile tissue of the clitoris.) Romans also called the walnut nux Gallica, meaning “the French nut.” Juglans regia, the botanical name of the Persian walnut (also called the English walnut), translates as the “regal nut of Jupiter.”

The black walnut tree, Juglans nigra, is native to the eastern United States, and was harvested by Native Americans at least 3,000 years ago. Juglans cinerea, the butternut or white walnut tree, is grown primarily for its valuable wood. When the Saxons invaded England, they referred to the indigenous Celts as wealhs, meaning “foreigners,” and called the walnut wealhknutu, meaning “foreign nut,” because they had never seen this strange nut before. The word wealhknutu is the source of the English word “walnut.”

In Greek mythology, Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine, music and poetry, fell madly in love with Caryae, the Titanus of Wisdom. When she died, the distraught god transformed her into a walnut tree. The goddess Artemis brought the news of Caryae’s death to the Laconians, who built a temple dedicated to Artemis-Caryatis. Caryae’s nymphs, the caryatids, were represented in architectural form as carved stone pillars in the shape of women supporting the entablature. The Greek word for “walnut,” karydi, is indicative of the link to the goddess Caryae.

Although the exact origin of walnut trees is unknown, Persia is their likely birthplace. The species now called the Persian walnut or English walnut grew in Persia more than 3,000 years ago. The nuts were an important flavouring and thickening agent in classical Arabic cooking. Ancient Persians were renowned for their sumptuous desserts and confections and dense cakes, made with walnuts, almonds, pistachios, dates and other dried fruit, sweetened with honey and sugar and spiced with cinnamon. Pastes made of crushed walnuts, apples, quinces and sugar were used as medicinal salves. Persian walnuts were introduced to China from Persia around 100 BC by the Chinese Emperor Wu Ti. Walnut trees were cultivated across southeast Europe and Asia Minor from early on.

Walnut shells have been unearthed from tombs in Tunis, North Africa, the site of the ancient city of Carthage, which was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. Petrified walnut shells dating back to the Stone Age have been excavated in southwest France.

The British introduced Persian walnut trees to Virginia and Massachusetts. The Carpathian species of the English walnut was introduced into North America from Poland in the early 1930s. English walnut trees were first cultivated in California in 1867. Today, California grows most of the walnuts consumed in North America and two-thirds of the walnuts enjoyed around the world.

In ancient Rome and Greece, walnuts symbolized fertility. It was customary to serve stewed walnuts at weddings to bless brides and grooms with fertility and good health. Though it sounds painful, it was also traditional for newlyweds to throw walnuts at children attending the ceremony. (You can put an eye out like that, but if you do, a walnut leaf infusion is an effective treatment for eye inflammations.) This walnut tossing custom symbolized that the couple had embarked on a new phase of life, leaving their youth and immaturity behind. The groom would also throw walnuts at the guests to promote their fertility and protect them from evil.

In Romania, brides used walnuts in a wedding custom meant to prevent fertility. A bride who did not wish to become pregnant immediately after her nuptials tucked a roasted walnut into her cleavage for every year she wanted to wait before having children. After the wedding, she buried the nuts in the ground.

In Italy and France during the Middle Ages, walnuts were given as love tokens. Folklore relates that dreaming of walnuts indicates that one’s lover is being unfaithful.

Ancient Folklore Medicine

Walnuts were considered beneficial for any disease affecting the head since early on because a whole walnut and the walnut meat within the shell both resemble a wrinkled human brain. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, a 14th century medical theory that theorized that a plant’s shape suggested its curative properties, eating walnuts was believed to stimulate the intellect. Walnut husks were used in folk medicine for the scalp, and walnut shells were recommended for skull ailments. In floriography, the language of flowers, walnuts represent the intellect.

During the Middle Ages, Europeans ate walnuts to cure epileptic fits. Empty walnut shells filled with spiders were carried as pocket pieces to remedy fevers. Walnuts were also placed in pockets to promote fertility to the bearer. Since ancient times, many cultures have believed walnut trees house evil spirits and that the trees are harmful to other plants that grow nearby. In Italy, witches were said to gather beneath walnut trees on Midsummer’s Eve. The nuts have been used in many superstitious rituals, to ward off witches, lightning and the evil eye.

The 17th century British physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote extensively about the healing properties of walnuts. He recommended walnut oil for colic and gas, and red wine infused with walnut meat for hair loss. Culpeper advised gargling with an infusion made with green walnut husks to heal mouth sores, and applying an infusion of walnut leaves to treat eye inflammations.