butternut

As I watched the limbs get lopped off one by one, each falling to the ground, then getting picked up and fed through the big chipper, I wondered about the history of this clump of trees that had occupied the hedgerow behind the Peacham Congregational Church for decades.

Once the trunk fell I discovered that despite their size and seeming permanence, they were only about 62 years old, meaning they sprouted just about 100 years after the church building was moved to its present location in 1844.

While butternuts were often planted as yard trees in decades gone by, the location of the church trees along the hedgerow probably means they were planted by squirrels, not enterprising congregants. We lived with a butternut tree in our yard for many years, and it was a ragged friend. Leaves form late in spring and drop early in the fall and the foliage tends to be sparse even in a healthy tree. On older trees, branches die and fall off regularly. The tree is allelopathic, meaning that it inhibits the growth of some other plants within reach of its root system. And unfortunately, they are succumbing to a deadly disease, the Butternut Canker.

Of course, there are nuts. Similar to their cousin black walnut, butternuts grow inside a very tough outer shell the shape of a small elongated lemon. The shell is encased in a green fleshy husk covered with sticky hairs that turns brown when mature. If you’re willing to spend the time and hard labor of cracking open the shell and extracting the nut halves, they are quite tasty, similar to walnuts. Butternuts are reported to be good for the gall bladder and are a mild laxative and consequently used to treat constipation. Native Americans used the oil from the nuts to make a sort of butter, which may have been the origin of the tree’s name, traced back to the 18th century. The original Americans boiled the sap to make a syrup. The oil was also used as a hair conditioner and mixed with bear grease as a bug repellant. For centuries a yellowish-brown dye has been made from the fresh inner bark. During the Civil War, most Confederate uniforms were homemade and dyed brown with butternut dye. One slang term described southern soldiers as “butternuts”.

Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is native to eastern North America north of Florida and into southern Canada. Once very common, it grows very well along streams and can still be found along some reaches of our rivers. Butternut is not tolerant of shade, acid soil, or very wet sites, and we rarely find it in the woods. Like other short-lived trees, butternut grows fast and reaches a height of 30 to 50 feet. It has pinnately compound leaves consisting of a stem 15 - 30 inches long with 11 to 17 leaflets, serrated along their edges. A good description can be found in “Forest Trees of Vermont” by Trevor Evans. The largest butternut tree in Vermont, measured in 2013 (hopefully still alive) is in Bennington County, measures 231 inches in circumference (over six feet diameter), is 59 feet tall, and has a spread of 80 feet.

As a woodworker, I was happy to salvage a few logs from the downed trees and saw what I could on my little mill. The wood is light but strong, doesn’t warp or check badly, and can be finished to a fine luster. The color is somewhat distinctive, lighter brown than black walnut. These days sound butternut logs of many sizes are hard to come by.

In 1967 researchers described a 40-acre tract in southwestern Wisconsin where all but two of the butternut trees were suffering a canker disease. Butternut Canker has since spread to kill trees across its entire range. The canker is caused by an exotically named fungus, Ophiognomonia clavigignenti-juglandacearum (OCJ). OCJ is not known to cause disease anywhere else in the world, but even so, is thought to be exotic. About 90 percent of the butternut trees in the United States have died from the canker. There appear to be some resistant trees and breeding programs are underway in both the USA and Canada to perpetuate the butternut. The work involves cloning healthy butternut trees by grafting scions from trees that appear healthy onto various rootstocks, then planting the clones out in an orchard and growing them to produce seed. It’s a slow process but scientists in both countries are optimistic that in a few more decades a strain of butternut trees resistant to the canker will be widely available. Perhaps our grandchildren, or their children, will once again collect butternuts and try their hand at cracking them.

On a final note of butternut history, in 1969 three butternut husks were discovered by archaeologists at the Viking settlement of L’Anse-aux-Meadows in northernmost Newfoundland. The discovery implies that the Vikings had traveled several hundred miles farther south, at least to the northern fringe of the butternut range either in New Brunswick or up the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and brought the nuts back. The Viking site dates from 1000 A.D.

Tim McKay is a conservationist, tree farmer and woodworker in Peacham.