From GENE LOGSDON
The breathtaking photo accompanying this blog post shows a grove of young black walnut trees growing above a lustrous carpet of wild hyacinths in late spring. But what the picture does not show makes it even more wildly beautiful. I would bet that very few readers can guess, in environmental or geographic terms, where photographer Dennis Barnes found this lovely scene. I would never have recognized the locale myself, even though seventy years ago I played many a day right there in that exact spot. You are not looking at some lush tropical jungle, or wild sanctuary in a national park, or institutional arboretum, or wildlife preserve, or refuge far from the haunts of humans. The location is a nondescript patch of Ohio farm country only a few yards away from a world of gullied corn fields. Seventy years ago it was open, park-like woodland used as sheep pasture and had been used that way for about another 70 years. The sheep kept new trees from coming in and limited the growth of wildflowers and brush. When the sheep were withdrawn, sure enough new trees and these wild hyacinths, which as children we had never seen, began to return.
At first there was nothing spectacular about this rejuvenating forest, but then Brad and Berny Billock (my brother-in-law and sister) bought the property, cleaned out much of the underbrush that had crept in and encouraged seedling black walnuts to spread out from a couple of hundred year old bearing trees. The Billocks reintroduced sheep but on a careful, rotational schedule. Then the flowers ran rampant through the grove. Botanists tell me that many wildflowers have the ability to remain dormant in the soil for years and then germinate and spring back to life when conditions are right again.
There is so much in this scene of tranquility to lift the heart. First of all the stand of black walnut trees, which are growing straight and free of side branches as you can see, is well on its way to making a valuable stand of lumber with only a bit of human labor involved. Underbrush growth is limited not only because of the rotational grazing, but also because the juglone exuded by the walnut roots is toxic to many plants that might otherwise grow here. Obviously juglone doesn’t hurt wild hyacinth nor do the sheep eat it. Furthermore, this native wildflower, like the black walnuts, is a food plant for humans. Native Americans and early white settlers gathered and ate the nuts, as we do now, and cooked the flower bulbs somewhat the way we do potatoes today. In other words, Brad and Berny have learned how to eat their cake and have it too, so to speak. The sheep have their graze and they have walnuts and if they so chose, their hyacinths bulbs for eating.
You will see this photo again in my new book, A Sanctuary of Trees, which will be out in the spring. To me this sylvan scene sings a triumphant song of hope and harmony for the future. Rather than a landscape of sad, gullied soil, which is typical of so much of the land that surrounds this little wild hyacinth sanctuary, nature can make, along with cultivated grains, a paradise of wild food to eat, lots of lumber for fuel, construction purposes, furniture and utensils, habitat for an unnumbered variety of wildlings and farm animals, and most of all, consummate beauty and everlasting life. Imagine a countryside where all the little woodlots and brushy ravines and creek sides dotting the grain fields were allowed to bloom and flourish like this. We would not need national and state parks to remind people of the harmony and beauty that nature is capable of providing us.
In my experience, foxtail, goldenrod and thistle will do a number on slowing the growth of trees. Mowing may not “always” be necessary, but it does reduce the risk of loss.
Even on my own small city lot, when i allowed nature to come in, miracles happened. Wildflowers and native plants appeared as if by magic. If we permit nature to teach us we can learn so much.
Thanks Mr. Logsdon. I started reading your work about a year ago and now have all your work that I could find. I have really enjoyed your writings, common sense and insight. The idea of keeping a full time job while building a sustainable farm is what I’m working towards. In the meantime I’m building up my knowledge base, working my garden, and not buying any “piston ringed roarers.”
Regarding Black Walnut, I’ve found the same thing with White Pine, in open country, white pine will grow bushy, and it open woodlands you get nice pole timber in only a century or so.
Patrick, believe me, when you start studying wild plants, herbs, etc. you will run into a lot of contradiction, especially on the subject of edible and inedible. I go into this in the book. You can Google wild hyacinths and find plenty.
Mark Messenger: I hope you do read my novels of course. You might be surprised.
Brett T and others: The book goes into this in great detail, but in my experience there is a great difference between starting black walnuts in an open field and in an open grove. Where there is partial shade from big trees, the seedling walnuts will grow straighter with less side limbs than seedlings in an open field. Mowing is nice but in my inexperience not necessary on a regular schedule. The trees will overcome the weeds. Gene Logsdon
This is something different for you writing wise, Gene, and I love it. You seem really tuned in and wise, and it is, of course, natural. This style of blog, though, makes me want to read your novels.
I always liked your writing. I was curious about your statement regarding
the wild hyacinth and eating the nuts. I tried to find some more information
regading this plant and found some conflicting information.
Since I am from southern california we have broidea which presumably is edible but
is a rather small plant and I would probably not want to collect them as they are
If you have time, I would appreciate more details about the genus, species
of hyacinth as there seems to be some possibility to gather an inedible or
Cant wait for the new book! I personally feel rejuvenated in a beautiful woodland. Trees have a certain soothing quality about them, even a spiritual sense. Reading how Gene views them will be exciting.
We planted 100 walnut seedlings in the spring of 2007 on old cultivated fields. I can’t give you any info on how they would do on there own since we mow around them once a month to keep weed competition down and allow the walnuts to grow at a little faster rate. The majority of the trees are now over 4 or 5 feet. Mortality was low. I’m guessing we lost fewer than 10.
I did start a small grove of 10 trees in 2001 and allowed nature to do her stuff and we didn’t mow that area until the following year. We lost all of them within 3 years.
One thing I’ve learned; if mother nature plants it, she’ll take care of it and allow it to grow. If we plant it, WE have to fight mother nature to get it to live.
my place in mid Wisconsin is on a limestone ridge and was pastured for years when i purchased it in the early eighties, so at that time only mature oaks (red, white and burr) plus hickory and juniper. I allowed much of it to go wild (I was not familiar with invasive species). In addition to the mature trees propagating, I also have a several other species that have moved in. Black locust (which I am fond of), box elder (don’t care for them), poplar (like), honeysuckle (ok) and european buckthorn (very very nasty). Those all came by themselves. I also introduced a variety of pine and spruce, some green ash and a maple or two. And the biggest success is the black walnuts. 25 years ago I brought up a couple of 5 gallon pails of black walnut nuts and let the squirrels plant most of them, plus I planted a couple dozen in a little nursery I made up. The squirrel planted walnuts are abundent and reproducing well. The nursery planted nuts did excellent as well (nearly 100% success). I transplanted those into a grove and they are doing well. THe walnut trees are a beautiful yard tree. I enjoy this blog thank you,
What a wonderful thing to do for your neighbourhood.
What is the success rate of planting black walnuts in open ground and keeping the underbrush at bay? Anyone have any experience here?
I am very intrigued as to how the careful rotational sheep grazing schedule can still keep the seedlings from being damaged.
I do limited grazing of an orchard, but my sheep will attack an apple tree whip replacement on day one.
Looking forward to your next book.
Beautiful! A great reminder that the earth can heal herself with a little help.