Is Growing Butternuts Possible: Information About White Walnut Trees

Is Growing Butternuts Possible: Information About White Walnut Trees

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By: Teo Spengler

What are butternuts? No, don’t think squash, think trees. Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is a species of walnut tree that is native to the eastern United States and Canada. And the nuts that grow on these wild trees are easy to process and delicious to eat. Read on for more butternut tree information.

Butternut Tree Information

If you tell someone you are growing butternuts from butternut trees, they are likely to respond: “What are butternuts?” Many gardeners are not familiar with the wild nut tree and have never tasted a butternut.

Butternut trees are also called white walnut trees because they have pale gray bark and are related to the black walnut tree (Juglans nigra) and other members of the walnut family. White walnut trees grow to 60 feet (18.3 m.) tall in the wild, with dark green leaves arranged in leaflets up to 20 inches (50.8 cm.) long.

Are Butternuts Edible?

When you are learning butternut tree information, the nuts themselves are of top interest. The fruit of the butternut tree is a nut. It is not round like the nut of the black walnut tree, but elongated, longer than it is wide.

The nut is deeply ridged and grows inside a green, hairy husk until they mature in mid-autumn. Squirrels and other wildlife love butternuts. Are butternuts edible by humans? They most certainly are, and have been eaten by Native Americans for centuries. Butternut trees, or white walnut trees, produce rich and delicious nuts.

The butternut is an oily nut that can be eaten as is when mature or prepared in a variety of ways. The Iroquis crushed and boiled butternuts and served the mixture as baby food or drinks, or processed it into breads, puddings, and sauces.

Growing Butternuts

It is entirely possible to start growing butternuts in your backyard, if you have a site with rich, loamy soil. The trees are vigorous and live for some 75 years.

However, the butternut tree is now a threatened species due to its susceptibility to a fungal canker disease, Sirococcus clavigignenti-jug-landacearum, also called “butter-nut canker.”

Its populations in the wild have diminished and in many places it is rare. Hybrids, where white walnut trees are crossed with Japanese walnut, are more resistant to the canker.

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Read more about Walnut Trees

Black Walnuts and Butternut

Black Walnut, Juglans nigra

I didn’t see my first Black Walnut tree until about 16 years ago. It so happened that the two places I lived the longest, Maine and Florida, are on both ends of the tree’s range. I lived a little north of the range and half a state south of the range.

However, I visited Alexandria, Virginia for an extended time and one day while jogging along a park trail there was a walnut tree covered with green mana. I went back later that same day and carried home all that I could carry (and did so for several weeks.) Then came the hard work. Walnuts are delicious, but they don’t give up easily.

The walnut most people buy are actually Juglans regia, (JEW-glanz REE-jee-uh) or “royal walnut.” They are also called English walnuts because English merchants popularized that particular nut, which is grown in the Balkans. You can find it from Greece to southwest China. The North American walnut, which is smaller and tougher to crack, is the Juglans nigra (JEW-glanz NYE-gruh), the Black Walnut.

Written references to the walnut are some 4,000 years old. About 1795 BC, Hammurabi mentioned them in a code of laws governing food. The Greeks were the first to systematically improve the species they got from Persia. The walnut is in Greek mythology in the story of Carya.

The god Dionysus (Dennis the Menace) fell in love with her. When she died, he changed her into a walnut tree. The goddess Artemis (Dianah) told Carya’s father the news and he ordered a temple be built in her memory. Its columns, sculpted from wood, were in the shape of young women. They were called catyatides, or nymphs of the walnut tree. Three famous stone Catyatides (and one cement substitute) are still standing at the Acropolis in Athens. Carya, incidentally, is the genus for hickories and pecans.

From Greece walnuts went to Rome around 100 BC and from Rome to Spain and France. When they got to England is a bit of a debate, from 400 AD to the 1400’s but the Old English name for walnut also started around 400 AD. The common walnut came to North America via the Spanish in California in the 1800’s. California leads the nation and the world in walnut production. Some 99% of the commercially purchased walnuts in the United States come from California, and 65%, almost two thirds of the walnuts consumed in the rest of the world come from California. The common walnut, J. regis, lives to about 60 and grow, on average, to 60 feet.

The American native, the Black walnut, J. nigra grows from New England west to Minnesota south to the Gulf of Mexico and across northern Florida. It can grow to 60 feet and can live past 100 years. Black Walnut trees are more valued for their wood than their walnuts. However the walnuts are used in baking, ice cream, and candy. The walnuts can be shelled into large pieces if soaked overnight in water. The nutmeat is crunchy and spicy.

A favorite of my family was the Butternut or White walnut, J. cinerea. (JEW-glanz sin-EER-ee-uh.) It’s closely related to the black walnut and has oval-shaped nuts, with a thick shell with white kernels. The best flavored of the walnuts, it was prized in my family for homemade butternut ice cream. It was one of my mother’s joys in life. There was a butternut orchard nearby. The nuts are sticky, hull easily, and in three segments. And delicious. J. cinerea can grow to 100 feet and live around 75 years and is the most cold tolerant of the walnuts. Like black walnut trees, the roots of the Butternut tree release a phytotoxin that keeps many other plants from growing near it.

The Black Walnut is the most common walnut among foragers. They’re shaped like basketballs two inches in diameter and are usually ready for harvest in late summer or early fall. Try to get the nuts off the tree if possible, and good ones on the ground. Remove the husk and let the nut dry which “cures” it. After curing they can be stored shelled or unshelled. Two pounds of walnuts off the tree will produce about a cup of nutmeat.

To process them, first do with the walnuts what you do with acorns. Put them in water and discard any that float. Kernel quality can be ruined by insects darker than usual husks may be evidence of insect damage. The water test gets rid of most but not all of the bad nuts. (Check those floating walnuts for edible grubs.)

Hulling walnuts is dirty, difficult work. A dye from the husk can stains your hands, clothes, tools and work surfaces. If the nuts are dry you can pound the hull side to side with a hammer. You can also use a cement mixer with three parts nuts to one part water plus a handful of gravel. Actually driving over them is dangerous in that the pressure can cause the nuts to pop out and hurt someone. Lastly, you can get a walnut sheller. After hulling, wash the unshelled nuts. Don’t compost the hulls because walnut hulls can suppress the grows of other plants. Tomatoes and apples, for example, won’t grow near walnuts.

After removing the husks walnuts have to be cured. Curing lets the walnut develop flavor. Stack the clean hulled nuts in shallow layers, put in a cool, dry, ventilated area out of sunlight for two weeks. A nut is cured when the kernel breaks crispy with a sharp snap. If you don’t cure them correctly they will mold. Store at 60F or less. Ideal humidity is 70%

When you’re ready to shell the walnuts, put them into hot tap water and soak for a day. Next day put them in hot tap water again for about two hours. Then shell. In a sealed jar in the refrigerator nutmeats can stay good for up to nine months, two years if frozen.

As for the scientific name Juglans… Carl Linnaeus, who thought up naming plants and who was the main man at doing so until he died, had a dirty mind. He was an R-rated professor. Many of the names he picked were not only risque — perhaps he was running out of ideas — but one wonders how he came up with some of them. Amorphophallus titanum and Capparis cynophallophora come to mind.

Amorphophallus titanum means large shapeless penis — which seems a contradiction in terms. Cynophallo… means “dog penis.” So the plant’s name, Capparis cynophallophora, means “dog-penis bearing caper.” And while I am no expert on dog anatomy I have seen the latter plant and I have no idea what Linnaeus was thinking. Which brings me back to Juglans.

Linnaeus made up “Juglans” from “Jove’s glans” meaning the end of Jove’s penis. Having collected a lot of walnuts I would have thought “Jugorchis” would have been more accurate (Jove’s testicle.) And who said plants aren’t sexy?

Some food authors, who know little about language, say Juglans means “Jupiter’s acorn” which it does but that is still referring to the same part of the male anatomy for the acorn was named, or vice versa. Then they soft pedal and say Juglans really means “a nut fit for Jupiter.” Frankly, their ain’t no polite way around it and be accurate. Linnaeus was the original dirty old man. As for the other parts of their name. Nigra is easy: That means black. Regia royal, and Cinera means “ash-colored.” We still see those words in “regal” and “cinder.”

The word “walnut” is G-rated and comes from the Old English phrase “wealh nutu” which means “foreign nut.” Variations of “wealh” are with us today as in Welsh” and the name ” Vlach.” In fact, in some parts of England walnuts are still called Welchnuts. The walnut was foreign to the English of yore because it came to them via the Romans from what is today France. When Latin was still the language of the educated, and “walnut” has not been adopted, it was called nux Gallica meaning “Gallic nut” or French nut.

Lastly, the most unusual use of walnut oil: The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming fluid. I like it on salads.

The Silviculture of Butternut

ValerieZinger/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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ValerieZinger/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Cultivars of this species have been selected for nut size and for ease of cracking and extracting kernels. Nuts are especially popular in New England for making maple-butternut candy. Small amounts of wood are used for cabinets, toys, and novelties. Butternut is under attack by the butternut canker disease within its range.


Butternut, or white walnut, is a medium-sized tree with a short trunk dividing into several ascending limbs that form an irregular or round-topped crown.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 10–20 inches long, with sticky hairs on the leaf stalk. Leaflets 11–19, 2–4 times longer than broad to lance-shaped, 2–5 inches long, 1½–2 inches wide margin with small teeth, tip pointed upper surface yellow-green with fine hairs lower surface paler, with sticky hairs when young leaves turn yellow in autumn.

Bark is gray to light brown, sometimes whitish, grooves deep, ridges broad, smooth, flat, short, roughly forming diamond-shaped patterns, chocolate-colored when cut.

Twigs are stout, brown to grayish-brown, hairy pores white, conspicuous end bud large, ½–¾ inch long, hairy pith of twig dark brown, separating into chambers when cut lengthwise.

Flowers April–May. Male flowers in catkins, female flowers in a short spike on the same tree.

Fruits September–October, in clusters of 1–5, drooping, odor strong, 1½–3 inches long, rather cynindrical (broadest in the middle and narrowing at two equal ends), with 2–4 lengthwise ridges, light brown, sticky with rust-brown hairs, not splitting open to expose the nut nut conspicuously 4-ribbed, sometimes with 4 fainter ribs, light brown, broadest in the middle and narrowing at both ends, 1–2½ inches long seed sweet, oily, edible.

Similar species: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is closely related and much more common in Missouri. Its fruits and the nut within are rather spherical the leaf scars have the upper edge notched (not straight) and are not bordered by a well-definied velvety ridge (as butternut's leaf scars are). The mild-tasting English (or Persian) walnut is the species J. regia. It is native to Eurasia and when cultivated in Missouri does not escape. The state of California grows nearly all of the US commercial supply of English walnuts. Walnuts are in the same family as hickories and pecans.

  • Leaves long, alternate, feather-compound, with sticky haris on the leaf stalk
  • Leaflets 11–19, toothed, upper surface with fine hairs
  • Fruits distinctive, sticky with rust-brown hairs, with strong odor, not splitting open to expose the fruit
  • Bark gray, tan, or whitish, deeply grooved with rather diamond-shaped patterns, ridges broad
  • Twigs stout, with chambered pith

The Butternut trees are identified by their special appearance. Here is their general description:

Picture 1 – Juglans cinerea

Height: These trees usually grow up to 20 meters in height. They are also known to have grown 30 meters in height.

Stem: Their stems are somewhere between 40 cm and 80 cm wide in diameter.

Bark: They have light grey bark developing in diamond pattern.

Leaves: The pinnate leaves grow 40 to 70 cm long with 10 to 17 leaflets. Each leaflet grows 5 cm to 10 cm in length and 3 cm to 5 cm in width. These leaves are alternate and compound in nature. Each leaf has a terminal leaflet. The Butternut leaves are bright yellowish green in color.

Flowers: The inconspicuous yellow green flowers grow in catkins.

Fruits: Their fruits grow in bunches with 2 to 6 lemon shaped fruits growing together. The green husk of these oblong-ovoid fruits surrounds the nuts.

Nuts: The nuts grow between 3 cm and 6 cm in length while they are 2 to 4 cm broad. They have an agreeable flavor with an oily texture.

  • 1 Distribution
  • 2 Description
    • 2.1 Flowering and fruiting
  • 3 Ecology
    • 3.1 Soil and topography
    • 3.2 Associated forest cover
      • 3.2.1 Canopy competition
    • 3.3 Diseases
      • 3.3.1 Butternut canker
      • 3.3.2 Hybrid resistance
      • 3.3.3 Other pests
    • 3.4 Conservation
  • 4 Famous specimens
  • 5 Uses
    • 5.1 Lumber
    • 5.2 Fabric dye
    • 5.3 Fishing
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links

The distribution range of J. cinerea extends east to New Brunswick, and from southern Quebec west to Minnesota, south to northern Alabama and southwest to northern Arkansas. [4] It is absent from most of the Southern United States. [5] The species also proliferates at middle elevations (about 2,000 ft or 610 m above sea level) in the Columbia River basin, Pacific Northwest as an off-site species. Trees with 7 ft or 2.1 m (over mature) class range diameter at breast height were noted in the Imnaha River drainage as late as January 26, 2015. [ citation needed ] Butternut favors a cooler climate than black walnut and its range does not extend into the Deep South. Its northern range extends into Wisconsin and Minnesota where the growing season is too short for black walnut.

J. cinerea is a deciduous tree growing to 20 m (66 ft) tall, rarely 40 m (130 ft). Butternut is a slow-growing species, and rarely lives longer than 75 years. It has a 40–80 cm (16–31 in) stem diameter, with light gray bark.

The leaves are alternate and pinnate, 40–70 cm (16–28 in) long, with 11–17 leaflets, each leaflet 5–10 cm (2–4 in) long and 3–5 cm ( 1 1 ⁄4 –2 in) broad. Leaves have a terminal leaflet at the end of the leafstalk and have an odd number of leaflets. The whole leaf is downy-pubescent, and a somewhat brighter, yellower green than many other tree leaves.

Flowering and fruiting Edit

Like other members of the family Juglandaceae, butternut's leafout in spring is tied to photoperiod rather than air temperature and occurs when daylight length reaches 14 hours. This can vary by up to a month in the northern and southernmost extents of its range. Leaf drop in fall is early and is initiated when daylight drops to 11 hours. The species is monoecious. Male (staminate) flowers are inconspicuous, yellow-green slender catkins that develop from auxiliary buds and female (pistillate) flowers are short terminal spikes on current year's shoots. Each female flower has a light pink stigma. Flowers of both sexes do not usually mature simultaneously on any individual tree.

The fruit is a lemon-shaped nut, produced in bunches of two to six together the nut is oblong-ovoid, 3–6 cm ( 1 1 ⁄4 – 2 1 ⁄4 in) long and 2–4 cm ( 3 ⁄4 – 1 1 ⁄2 in) broad, surrounded by a green husk before maturity in midautumn.

Soil and topography Edit

Butternut grows best on stream banks and on well-drained soils. It is seldom found on dry, compact, or infertile soils. It grows better than black walnut, however, on dry, rocky soils, especially those of limestone origin. Butternut's range includes the rocky soils of New England where black walnut is largely absent.

Butternut is found most frequently in coves, on stream benches and terraces, on slopes, in the talus of rock ledges, and on other sites with good drainage. It is found up to an elevation of 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) in the Virginias – much higher altitudes than black walnut. The nuts are eaten by wildlife. [6]

Associated forest cover Edit

Butternut is found with many other tree species in several hardwood types in the mixed mesophytic forest. It is an associated species in the following four northern and central forest cover types: sugar maple–basswood, yellow poplar–white oak–northern red oak, beech–sugar maple, and river birch–sycamore. Commonly associated trees include basswood (Tilia spp.), black cherry (Prunus serotina), beech (Fagus grandifolia), black walnut (Juglans nigra), elm (Ulmus spp.), hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), hickory (Carya spp.), oak (Quercus spp.), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), white ash (Fraxinus americana), and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). In the northeast part of its range, it is often found with sweet birch (Betula lenta) and in the northern part of its range it is occasionally found with white pine (Pinus strobus). Forest stands seldom contain more than an occasional butternut tree, although in local areas, it may be abundant. In the past, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee have been the leading producers of butternut timber.

Canopy competition Edit

Although young trees may withstand competition from the side, butternut does not survive under shade from above. It must be in the overstory to thrive. Therefore, it is classed as intolerant of shade and competition.

Diseases Edit

Butternut canker Edit

The most serious disease of J. cinerea is butternut decline or butternut canker. [7] In the past, the causal organism of this disease was thought to be a fungus, Melanconis juglandis. Now this fungus has been associated with secondary infections and the primary causal organism of the disease has been identified as another species of fungus, Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum. The fungus is spread by wide-ranging vectors, [ citation needed ] so isolation of a tree offers no protection.

Butternut canker first entered the United States around the beginning of the 20th century, when it arrived on imported nursery stock of Japanese walnut.

Symptoms of the disease include dying branches and stems. Initially, cankers develop on branches in the lower crown. Spores developing on these dying branches are spread by rainwater to tree stems. Stem cankers develop 1 to 3 years after branches die. Tree tops killed by stem-girdling cankers do not resprout. Diseased trees usually die within several years. Completely free-standing trees seem better able to withstand the fungus than those growing in dense stands or forest. In some areas, 90% of the butternut trees have been killed. The disease is reported to have eliminated butternut from North and South Carolina. [ citation needed ] The disease is also reported to be spreading rapidly in Wisconsin. By contrast, black walnut seems to be resistant to the disease.

Hybrid resistance Edit

Butternut hybridizes readily with Japanese walnut. The hybrid between butternut and the Japanese walnut is commonly known as the 'buartnut' and inherits Japanese walnut's resistance to the disease. Researchers are back-crossing butternut to buartnut, creating 'butter-buarts" which should have more butternut traits than buartnuts. They are selecting for resistance to the disease. Most butternuts found as landscaping trees are buartnuts rather than the pure species.

Other pests Edit

Bunch disease also attacks butternut. Currently, the causal agent is thought to be a mycoplasma-like organism. Symptoms include a yellow witches' broom resulting from sprouting and growth of auxiliary buds that would normally remain dormant. Infected branches fail to become dormant in the fall and are killed by frost highly susceptible trees may eventually be killed. Butternut seems to be more susceptible to this disease than black walnut.

The common grackle has been reported to destroy immature fruit and may be considered a butternut pest when populations are high.

Butternut is very susceptible to fire damage, and although the species is generally wind firm, it is subject to frequent storm damage.

Conservation Edit

The species is not listed as threatened federally in the US, but is listed as "Special Concern" in Kentucky, "Exploitably Vulnerable" in New York State, and "Threatened" in Tennessee. [8]

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada placed the butternut on the endangered species list in Canada in 2005. [9]

Approximately 60 grafted butternut trees were planted in a seed orchard in Huntingburg, Indiana in 2012 as part of a larger effort by the USDA Forest Service to conserve the species and to breed resistance to butternut canker disease. Forest Service staff from the Hoosier National Forest, the Eastern Region National Forest genetics program, the Northern Research Station, and the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center at Purdue University are involved in the project. [10]

The American Forest National Champion is located in Oneida, New York. In 2016 its circumference at breast height was 288 in (7,300 mm), the height was 67 ft (20 m), and the spread was 88 ft (27 m). [11]

In Louisa May Alcott's Little Men (1871) the two youngest boys, Rob and Teddy, have an amusing running battle with the squirrels over collecting the butternuts.

The Bush butternut tree was planted by settler George Bush (1845) in current Tumwater, Washington, brought from Missouri. As of 2019 [update] , this tree is still alive.

The butternuts are edible [12] and were made into oil by Native Americans for various purposes, including anointment. The husks contain a natural yellow-orange dye. [6]

Lumber Edit

Butternut wood is light in weight and takes polish well, and is highly rot resistant, but is much softer than black walnut wood. Oiled, the grain of the wood usually shows much light. It is often used to make furniture, and is a favorite of woodcarvers.

Fabric dye Edit

Butternut bark and nut rinds were once often used to dye cloth to colors between light yellow [13] and dark brown. [14] To produce the darker colors, the bark is boiled to concentrate the color. This appears to never have been used as a commercial dye, but rather was used to color homespun cloth.

In the mid-19th century, inhabitants of areas such as southern Illinois and southern Indiana – many of whom had moved there from the Southern United States – were known as "butternuts" from the butternut-dyed homespun cloth that some of them wore. Later, during the American Civil War, the term "butternut" was sometimes applied to Confederate soldiers. Some Confederate uniforms apparently faded from gray to a tan or light brown. It is also possible that butternut was used to color the cloth worn by a small number of Confederate soldiers. [15] The resemblance of these uniforms to butternut-dyed clothing, and the association of butternut dye with home-made clothing, resulted in this derisive nickname.

Fishing Edit

Crushed fruits can be used to poison fish, though the practice is illegal in most jurisdictions. Bruised fruit husks of the closely related black walnut can be used to stun fish. [16]

Butternut at Virginia Tech

cvrgrl HW/ Public Domain

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cvrgrl HW/ Public Domain

  • Leaf: Alternate, pinnately compound, 15 to 25 inches long, with 11 to 17 oblong-lanceolate leaflets with serrate margins rachis is stout and pubescent with a well developed terminal leaflet green above and paler below.
  • Twig: Stout, maybe somewhat pubescent, yellow-brown to gray, with a chambered pith that is very dark brown in color buds are large and covered with a few light-colored pubescent scales leaf scars are 3-lobed, resembling a "monkey face" a tuft of pubescence is present above the leaf scar resembling an "eyebrow."

Watch the video: Butternut Seed Orchard


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