Lamenting the loss of the butternut tree

Friday, August 29, 2003

Do you hate to lose stuff? Most of us do. It stinks when we lose something that was really valuable, right?

If that uncomfortable feeling of loss is something you care to fight, then consider the plight of the butternut tree. This tree, important to man and beast alike, is in danger of disappearing without a fuss.

You might have trouble finding a nut-loving animal that wouldn't devour the butternut fruit. Like hickories and walnuts, butternuts have a sticky husk covering their tough shells.

Squirrels are perhaps best at making the distinctive nut meat available for consumption, with exception to humans.

Butternut anonymity is a modern circumstance. Native tribes were well acquainted with the butternut and gathered the nuts every fall. They crushed them and placed them in a small pit filled with water. Meanwhile, rocks heated by a glowing fire were dropped into the water to bring it to a boil. An oily film from the nut meat would boil to the top and could be skimmed away. This thick oil was almost buttery in consistency, hence the name.

Many tribes cooked with butternut oil, but they also used the oil to anoint their heads. For natives, this was known to be ceremonial, but it also was functional as a mosquito repellent.

Getting the most

European settlers enjoyed the nut meat and used the oil to dye clothing, much as they would use black walnut husks. They also utilized the oil much as the natives did, only with more modern tools. Butternut was important to European descendants as a food source, but it developed acclaim for something else: great raw material.

The wood shares much in common with its close relative -- the black walnut -- by being hard but easy to work. Instead of a deep chocolate wood, it was much lighter, hence its other name: white walnut. Its wood was valuable to 18th and 19th century saws mills all over the eastern United States.

Back when butternut lumber was more readily available, it was used a lot indoors. Butternut lumber is highly susceptible to rot but was historically used for fine wood products such as tables, chairs, desks, dressers, cabinets, wall panels, church alters and stage coaches interiors.

Occurring infrequently along rich bottomlands, butternut trees are now declining due to a fungal disease known as Butternut Canker. First noted in 1967 in Wisconsin, the canker spread rapidly.

Missouri's butternut trees are now infected, and healthy trees are becoming rarer. The problem with this canker is it kills nearly every tree it infects by girdling. Recovery from this version of tree strangulation is uncommon, but younger trees are better able to overcome the disease due to fast growth. Unfortunately older and slow growing trees succumb to its effects. This is a problem because mature trees produce most of the nuts important for species propagation, while younger trees have lower production. Hope for the species is bleak. Some foresters are optimistic, but most predict a few decades before the butternut is lost forever.

Plenty of opportunity

Think about that. A food-producing tree with high value lumber potential is barreling down the extinction freeway. Is there hope to save it? There is if we look for butternuts in the wild.

First, learn how to recognize one. The nuts are distinctive and one of the easiest to spot. The butternut fruit has an oblong shape -- quite different from their walnut and hickory cousins. Butternut husk does not split like a hickory. Another sign is the fine reddish hairs covering the leaf stalk and the plant's sticky nature. A light sticky resin exists on the leaves, limbs and husks to make a clear distinction from similar looking hickory, walnut or pecan leaves.

If you're fortunate enough to find a butternut, pamper it a bit. Butternuts thrive in full sun, so cut trees around it that may shade it. Avoid harvesting the tree if possible, especially if it is clearly not diseased or dying. A few butternuts may survive the disease and could provide the genetics foresters need to restock the species. Precious few butternuts can survive the canker, so protection of the survivors is vital.

A second strategy for helping this wonderful tree is to attempt to grow the trees from seed. Experts indicate butternut seeds can be treated like walnut seeds to germinate and grow. To grow butternut from seed, remove the husk and place in about 1 inch of soil in a sunny location. Then cover the seed bed with mulch to prevent severe freeze.

In spring, remove the mulch and watch for growth. If you find butternut fruit and do not want to grow it yourself, contact a forester with the conservation department. Foresters can verify whether the tree is truly a butternut and forward live seeds to a state tree nursery.

We will never make long term use of butternut if we lose it, but wise use of this fantastic species may still be possible. Take the time to become familiar with this valuable tree. You may be the person who beats the odds and can actually find a butternut tree. With your help, protecting a remaining butternut tree could bolster the butternut's conservation for generations to come.

A.J. Hendershott is an area agent with the MDC.

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