The Curious Case of Cross-Cultural Pocket Nuts

Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

Recently, I was introduced to the pocket nuts of China by virtue of being nosy about the gentle clicking sounds I was hearing coming from a Chinese gentleman’s hand.  He opened his hand to reveal a beautiful pair of Juglans cathayensis, or Chinese walnuts, still in their shell.  Their ridges and crenelations had become worn and smooth, and were turning a rich red color.

He shared with me pictures of antique walnut pairs which had turned bright red from hand oils and were astonishingly beautiful.  Other nuts had been carved into delicate and complex designs.  Carrying these nuts and turning them in the hands, he said, was once a fashion accessory and status symbol in the Imperial Chinese Court.  They were believed to warm the joints, improve blood flow and relieve joint pain.  Their popularity has returned in recent years, driving the prices of prime pairs of symmetrical nuts above the price of gold.

Oddly Enough…

In the Appalachians and other parts of the United States, carrying a buckeye (Aesculus spp.) in your pocket is a folk remedy for preventing and helping control arthritis and joint pain.  After many years, these nuts turn black and shiny with age and handling.

This folk remedy is still in use today, although it is often accused of being a placebo.  How, after all, could just a nut in your pocket do anything?

What are the odds of two unrelated nuts being used effectively for the same condition in such geographical separated cultures?

Turns out, the odds are pretty good, and they both work.

The cure lies not in the plants themselves, but in the motion.  If you are carrying a nut or two in your pocket, chances are you are going to feel the urge to fidget with them.  Modern science knows that mild to moderate exercise relieves the symptoms of osteo and rheumatoid arthritis and can even delay surgery.  Keeping the blood flowing and the hands moving will help retain mobility and range of motion.

In short, you could use any nut or large seed and get the same beneficial effects if you have arthritis in your hands and wrists.  Chestnuts, large acorns and pecans are possible alternatives.  I would find it fascinating to compare the color and texture of different nuts after many years of handling to antique Chinese walnuts.

About the Walnuts

J. cathayensis is closely related to both the American native Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) and the Carpathian, Persian or English Walnut (Juglans regia), which is the imported European walnut most commonly eaten in the United States.  English Walnuts are also becoming a popular nut for eating in China, as they are easier to shell than J. cathayensis.  (I also suspect the rising prices of native walnuts contributes to the demand for imported walnuts.)  Butternuts and pecans are also in this genus.

Large mature Black Walnut trees are much more uncommon than they used to be.  The decorative wood is highly prized, which resulted in many older trees being cut down.  Meanwhile, the fleshy husks covering the seed stains everything including skin, clothes and concrete, making them an unpopular choice of shade tree for homeowners.  The nuts are difficult to crack and extract the meat from, but their taste is much richer and smokier than English Walnuts.  If English Walnuts are sliced American cheese, Black Walnuts are aged gouda.  They worth the effort, in my opinion.  They can be either be foraged in the wild or planted in an out of the way spot and left alone for the 10-12 years it will take to get a crop.

About Buckeye

Seeds of Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), still in their husks
Seeds of Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), still in their husks

There are 6 different species of Buckeye in the United States.  Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is the most common in North Alabama.  Buckeye is considered inedible by most due to high level of saponins and other toxins.  While it seems theoretically possible that these chemicals could be leached out in a process similar to that used for acorns, since acorns are very plentiful and of proven edibility, buckeyes should be left off the food foraging list.  You do not, however, need to spend $3 online plus shipping for a single “lucky” buckeye packaged in plastic.  Buckeye seeds can be found throughout the fall in the Applalachian Mountains.

Buckeyes are sometimes called horse chestnuts, but the processed herbal medicine called “horse chestnut” is the European Aesculus hippocastanum.