Country Diary: Walnut trees are highly prized for nuts and timber

Walnut tree
Walnut tree
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The mellow year is hastening to its close;

The little birds have almost sung their last,

Their small notes twitter in the dreary blast.

From November, by Hartley Coleridge.

Although autumn brings a thickening of mists and fogs, bright mornings dawn with magnificent skies. Broad bands of crimson dart across blue skies like tattered streamers stretching fingers of brilliant colour beyond the horizon.

As we open the door, a robin’s varied song is the first to greet us. His short, high warbling phrases can be heard all year, but the autumn song is quieter as winter territories are marked out.

The robin’s association with Christmas dates from the 1860s when greetings cards became fashionable. Postmen wore red tunics and were actually known as robins.

With Christmas in mind, Michael is filling his spare moments creating not only bird tables, but nest boxes for robins. These are donated to many charity shops. Now is the time to place one in a bank, hole, or garden shed.

Despite a super abundance of conkers and sweet chestnuts this autumn, we failed to find a single walnut! We know of only two walnut trees in the Scarborough area, but neither appeared to have seeded.

The Romans introduced the walnut tree to the British Isles, and it is highly prized not only for its nuts, but its decorative timber. The tree has light grey bark, with black fissures creating narrow, rough ridges. It has a rounded canopy of long, spreading branches. The leaves are pinnate, and similar to ash, with up to nine leaflets growing from a main leaf stalk. These are deep green, with a dull sheen when mature. In late spring, both male and female flowers form on the same tree, in long, green catkins.

However, should keen frosts arrive in late spring, pollination can be prevented, and no nuts will form. Maybe next year will prove a fruitful one. At least the squirrels have enjoyed a great harvest of other nuts easily accessible.

At the foot of woodland, alongside Crossdales Beck near Hackness, at least a dozen pheasants foraged amongst leaf litter for nuts and seeds. Although introduced to Britain, probably before the Norman Conquest, pheasants are now a familiar and characteristic part of our landscape. It seems strange to think they are not ‘British’ at all, particularly when they feature on some of our favourite Christmas cards!

The vivid plumage of the splendid, long-tailed male, serves to attract females. In autumn, their colours almost rival the splendour of the trees. The females are smaller and short-tailed, more like a big partridge. Having subdued colouring means they’re well camouflaged when nesting on the ground.

Meanwhile, we continue to forage for fungi, and the sulphur tuft has brightened grass verges with its colourful, sulphur yellow caps – unfortunately inedible!