Legend has it that Alexander the Great brought the walnut back to Europe from southern Kyrgyzstan in the 4th century B.C. when his army passed through the Arslanbob forest.
Whatever the veracity of the story, it's certainly true that the walnut groves above the Ferghana Valley have been around for a very long time.
Believed to be the largest natural walnut plantation in the world, Arslanbob is at least 1,000 years old and some of its trees have been standing for centuries.
For generations, the nuts have provided a vital source of income to the mostly ethnic Uzbeks who live in this impoverished region.
Although the forest also produces thousands of tons of apples, pistachios, plums, and other fruits, it is the walnut that is the lifeblood of the local economy.
Every fall, thousands of people from the surrounding region come to set up camp with their families and harvest the nuts. Often risking life and limb to climb the trees and shake the nuts down, they sell much of what they can gather at local markets while also keeping enough for their own needs.
Like many who live near the ancient woodlands, Mairam Nurkulova has been going to the forest every year to pick walnuts with her daughters.
"Gathering walnuts is crucial to us," Nurkulova told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, describing the annual harvest as "a big income for the locals."
This year, however, snowfall in the spring when the walnuts were budding has had a devastating effect on the latest crop, dealing a severe blow to the people who depend on it.
"The walnut harvest is very poor this year," Nurkulova said, adding that this will hit her community especially hard as they cannot keep livestock. "Our village is surrounded by a walnut forest. There is no space for pastures."
It's a problem that has affected many across the region, and business has crawled to a standstill at local walnut markets, where traders usually buy hundreds of tons of the nuts, many of them destined for sale in places like Turkey, Iran, China, and especially Russia, which imports around one-quarter of all its walnuts from Kyrgyzstan.
"Every year at this time, the marketplace is bustling with buyers and sellers," says Nurlan Kojoev, who has worked at a market in Jalal-Abad for 20 years. "Now, you can see only a few customers."
With business so bad, Kojoev says he's had to sell unshelled walnuts for just 40-100 soms ($0.50-$1.20) per kilogram depending on their quality, well down on what you would expect in a good year when a kilo of the best nuts can fetch 120-150 soms.
This year's poor harvest has only served to highlight the long-standing problems facing Arslanbob and the surrounding region, whose local economy is often as fragile as the delicate ecosystem that underpins it.
Since the collapse of Soviet state enterprises, such as potato farms and fruit-processing plants, decades ago, people here have become increasingly dependent on the land to survive, especially the walnut crop.
State management of this forest's bounty has often been lacking, and the problem has been exacerbated by locals also investing in livestock as a form of security against poor nut harvests, which are happening with increasing frequency amid fears that climate change has begun to bite as unseasonal rain and snow take their toll on the walnut groves.
This has resulted in overgrazing, which causes soil erosion that is damaging trees, resulting in more environmental and economic stress.
For some years now, concerted efforts have been made to tackle the situation. State agencies and international organizations have been attempting to introduce more sustainable forms of agriculture and to help locals monetize other forms of forest produce, such as high-quality dried fruits, mushrooms, and medicinal herbs.
Some have also been trying to exploit the region's natural beauty by attracting eco-tourists interested in sharing a nut-picking experience with local families while also sampling the area's lush forest landscape and spectacular waterfalls.
Whether such initiatives can help secure Arslanbob's long-term future remains to be seen, however. In some cases, they may even have hindered conservation efforts.
According to the World Bank, a government decree banning the felling of wild walnut trees -- even diseased limbs -- with the aim of curbing rapid deforestation in the 1990s due to locals felling wood for fuel resulted in many trees not receiving "proper care and maintenance to trim broken or diseased branches." Unfortunately, this may have caused "a decrease in the stock of walnut trees as older trees [became] diseased and [died] off quicker than anticipated."
Moreover, Bishkek's endeavors to ensure better land management and reduce unregulated harvesting by officially leasing sections of the walnut plantation to people like Nurkulova can also cause major headaches for locals when the harvest fails.
This year's poor walnut yields have hit tenants' finances hard, and yet they still have to come up with money to pay the lease on their forest allotments, which can cost as much as 2,000 soms per hectare.
Although a local environment and forestry official told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that authorities were looking for solutions to the difficulties facing walnut pickers, Nurkulova is not too optimistic about her immediate prospects.
Without the expected income from the gathering of nuts, it looks like she and her fellow villagers have a hard winter ahead. Some of them may have to depend on remittances from sons and daughters who have abandoned this ancient way of life for jobs elsewhere.
"Many young people have migrated to Russia," Nurkulova says.