Butternut tree

The Butternut Tree (Juglans cinerea), also known as a white walnut, was once a very common component of eastern forests. Butternuts belong to the same family as the black walnut, both preferring deep, moist, well drained soils and not tolerating much overhead competition from other trees. However, the trees differ in the color of their bark, the black walnut having a deep brown color with distinct ridges and furrows, while the bark of the butternut is smoother and lighter, with a gray cast. The fruit of the butternut is oval, while the black walnut’s is mostly round. The wood of the butternut is lighter than the deep chocolate color of its cousin. Black walnuts live longer and grow to a larger size than the butternut.

Butternut trees produce an oval fruit, unlike the round fruit of the black walnut.

Photo from flicker.com by Bruce Marlin

In 1967, forest scientists working in Wisconsin identified a fungal disease attacking butternuts that they named “butternut canker.” They determined that this air borne disease infects butternuts through their leaf scars, buds, or other wounds. Once infected, the disease moves down to the lower limbs where it forms cankers, and finally to the main trunk. The disease causes multiple canker formation on the tree which ultimately leads to its death in 10-12 years. Butternut canker disease has had a significant impact on the range of butternuts, particularly in the south where 80% – 90% have died. This appears to be the case in Frederick County where most of the butternut have disappeared. Butternut growing in open spaces are more resistant to the disease than those in forest communities, most likely the result of increased air flow in open areas, making it harder for fungi to become established.

Butternuts are still grown for nut production and in nurseries for reforestation purposes. Butternut lumber is prized for its beauty and workability for fine woodworking. The inner bark of butternuts was used as a popular dye in the 1800’s to impart a yellow or light brown hue; and, it was believed that some Confederate soldiers used this dye for their uniform, giving rise to the nickname “butternut” for these soldiers.

Article by FCFCDB member

Nature Notes for 11/15/2015