Mychal Wilmes: Toxic tree takes toll on garden

The pepper, tomato and eggplants struggled to grow, turned yellow and eventually died. Turns out a tree was to blame.

Mychal Wilmes

The pepper, tomato and eggplants struggled to grow, turned yellow and eventually were snatched away by unseen, evil Machiavellian hands. Similar plant types have faded away for no apparent reason during the past few years. An apple tree located a few feet away from the garden died last year.

An unbiased observer easily identified the culprit when his opinion was sought.

"You’ve got Juglone toxicity,’’ he said. "Your problem is that tree.’’

The tree is a walnut growing a few feet from the garden’s edge. It had started life as a struggling twig, which needed mulch and water to survive. I learned to love the tree variety from my father, who collected several gunny sacks of walnuts and butter nuts each fall before squirrels hustled them away. The nuts were left to dry on a shed’s low roof. Dad cracked them in winter and mother used their meat to make fruitcake, cookies and pumpkin bread.

From its humble origin, as a nut buried by a forgetful squirrel, the tree has grown to more than 40 feet with a near-perfect canopy. The poison secreted by a tree of that height can reach 80 feet, which effectively covers the garden.


I had never heard of Juglone toxicity but most of the coffee shop crowd had.

"Walnuts are gosh-awful trees,’’ Butch said.

I will extract a measure of revenge this fall when it will be reduced to a stump.

"That might not do you much good,’’ the observer said, adding that Juglone can survive in the soil around the roots for years and remain poisonous.

A couple of raised gardens far away from the tree’s clutches prevents a complete crop failure. However, the two beds may not be safe given a squirrel buried several nuts within the boxes.

Juglone is found in walnuts and leaves. Allergic reactions in humans include hives, breathing difficulties and throat tightness. Gloves should be worn when handling unshelled nuts because the sticky residue can cause big problems.

The bad in them ought to be offset by something good. Indeed, cancer researchers generally agree that Juglone has the potential to kill liver and prostate cancer cells. Walnut husks can also be used to make dye. The walnut appears in Greek mythology — the god Dionysus fell in love with Carya and when she died he transformed her into a walnut tree. The Bible’s Old Testament records the pride Solomon felt when he showed guests his walnut grove.

Solomon may be the wisest man born of a woman, but he’s off base about walnuts.


A squirrel, who no doubt has a different opinion, scolded me from his perch in the tree. Because I’ve lost patience with him and his cohorts, I yelled in his general direction. Squirrel, when dipped in egg and flour and fried in a cast-iron skillet, rivals spring chicken in deliciousness.

The me-against-the-immediate-world attitude lightens when I discover two ripe baseball-size tomatoes in the raised bed along with several cucumbers and a pair of broccoli bunches. Milkweed plants are going to seed. I apply the milk from a fallen milkweed to a minor arm injury. The weed’s milk — supported by tradition more than scientific fact — can sooth cuts and cure warts, which legend says are caused by handling toads.

The walnut will be gone by next growing season but the fate of the 20 ash trees has yet to be decided. Emerald Ash borer may eventually kill them. I may replace them with box elders, known as the black sheep of the maple family. Box elders shed limbs when a gentle breeze threatens and become ugly in gnarly adulthood. In a pinch, their sap produces poor quality syrup.

"Who in the world would plant box elders?’’ a friend asked.

The answer, however inadequate it might be, is a person who delights in finding the perfect in the imperfect.

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