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What is a Butternut Tree? (Uses and Characteristics)


Learn everything there is to know about the Butternut Tree, its many uses, its various characteristics, where it grows and the different diseases that plague it.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who had the thought “I didn’t know that butternuts grew on trees” when hearing of a . Not to worry, the world is as it should be and squash still grows on vines on the ground.

The gets its name from the nut that it produces, which greatly resembles a squash. The , or , grows all over North America, yet is not super easy to come by. To better help find one on your next forest walk, read on to learn more about the !

If you’re interested in other kinds of our gentle giant neighbors, read up on 101 Types of Trees from around the world!

Related: All types of trees

Referred to as either or , these deciduous beauties are native to the United States and Canada. Although it is not a staple in the average mesophytic forests (they’re often to be found growing as individuals) you may just stumble upon on by chance, if you know what to be looking for.

This is extremely slow-growing (only a few inches a year) and will grow to be an average of 20 meters in height — although it has happened that they grow to be over 40 meters tall. This is unfortunate, as they rarely live to be past 75 years of age. Live slow, die young, as they say.

What do Look Like?

is light gray and rough in texture, a very generic type of . This is not the way to identify a . The trunks are rather wide and sturdy, which leads to a generously open canopy, making them a decent .

In the canopy, you will find leaves that alternately arranged and pinnately shaped. Each contains anywhere between 11 and 17 leaflets that are around 3 inches long. The texture is rather downy, and its color is more of a limey-yellow green than can be found on most trees.

A bit of an unusual detail, the production of a is tied to photoperiod rather than temperatures in the air. Whereas most deciduous trees lose their leaves once temperatures drop, the gets its dropping cue from the amount of daylight in the day.

In the fall, once the amount of daylight dips below 11 hours a day, the leaves of a will fall. In the spring, once the amount of daylight reaches more than 14 hours per day, then the new flourish of leaves will sprout.

Where do Grow?

A can only be found in certain regions of the United States and Canada. Their range extends from New Brunswick to southern Quebec in Canada, and they are spread from Minnesota to Arkansas, to northern Alabama.

Due to their growing preferences, they are completely absent from the deep south in the United States. are unfortunately very susceptible to forest fires, but they are rather resistant to wind storms.

What are the Growing Conditions of a ?

The proliferates anywhere between 600-1500 meters above sea level, and this is because it is rather intolerant of consistent heat. The needs those cool nights that higher elevation regions can provide.

Butternuts prefer soils that are well-drained, and that is near stream banks or other bodies of water. Although it does occur that they grow in dry, rocky soils (certainly with origins in limestone), they are generally going to be found near stream benches, and in the talus fields of rocky slopes.

The tends to grow as an individual, rather than in one giant stock. Since they so seldom grow in groups, it is easier to find them in reference to the other hardwoods that they grow near.

However, it is important that there are disturbances in the forest canopy. The cannot grow if it is hidden under a tight shade, and this classifies them as a very shade-intolerant .

Mesophytic forests (forests that are neither too dry and hot, nor wet and cold) that contain:

  • basswood
  • beech
  • river birch
  • sugar maple
  • sycamore
  • yellow poplar
  • white oak

will probably also contain a small collection of as well. In regions that don’t contain these trees, they will commonly be associated with:

  • black cherry
  • elm
  • hemlock
  • hickory
  • oak
  • red maple
  • sweet birch
  • white ash
  • white pine
  • yellow birch

How do Reproduce?

The is a monoecious , meaning that it possesses both and . However, it is unlikely that the flowers will mature both at the same time, and so it becomes necessary for pollinators to bring pollen from other mature trees for it to be properly pollinated. This means that can be self-pollinating, but that is rarely the case due to delayed maturity.

The flowers of develop as , which are clusters of tiny flowers with indistinct or no petals found at the ends of . The male are staminate, bright yellow-green color and they develop from auxiliary buds. Female are pistillate, with a light pink stigma, and they will grow on the current years’ shoots.

The from a that comes from pollination is a nut shaped like a lemon. They grow in small bunches of 2-6, and the nut is encompassed by a green . These fruits are one of the easiest ways to identify a , and they are a delicious and !

How is and Foliage Used?

The of a is very lightweight. It’s tightly grained and takes polish rather well, and it is highly resistant to rot, making it a favorite for woodcarvers. Due to its easy workability and attractive grain, it’s also a popular choice for furniture manufacturing as well.

The butternuts themselves are eaten by all sorts of small and large mammals, and birds that have the knowhow on how to remove the protective . Humans will also harvest butternuts and make them into oils for ointments.

The rinds of nuts have been used traditionally for many decades in natural dyeing as well. The  or rind of the nut contains a natural and vibrant orange dye. To concentrate the color, it may also be boiled with .

Interestingly enough, in the early 19th century, folks who lived in areas with prevalent — like southern Illinois and Indiana — were referred to as “butternuts” since most of their clothing was dyed the color of butternuts. During the civil war, that nickname was then given to confederate soldiers, as their uniforms were dyed using pigment as well.

What Diseases are Subjected To?

There is a disease called “ ” that are susceptible to. Originally thought to be brought on by the melanconis juglandis, it was soon discovered that this simply resulted in further infection to the . As we know, fungi are usually quite quick to infect vulnerable areas.

The main culprit of a is actually the sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum. This parasitic was brought to the United States in the early 20th century through an importation of infected trees. However, Japanese walnuts appear to have , and for this reason, in order to combat the disease, people have started making hybrids of butternuts and Japanese walnuts called “buartnuts”. These hybrids are disease-resistant, more capable of maturing into a .

The will begin by killing branches and stems of the lower canopy, where cankers will start to develop on an . These cankers are vulnerable wounds, where other types of fungi will start to attack the area, ultimately killing the within 5 years.

Another disease that butternuts are susceptible to is “bunch disease”. The main symptom of this ailment comes in the form of a “witches’ broom”. This appears as a dense mass of uncontrolled branch growth, kind of like cancerous cells, that start to appear in the canopy of the . These clusters fail to become dormant in winter and are eventually killed by frost. These dead branches then make the vulnerable, where will come in and infect the further.


Are nuts edible?

Yes, they are! They are very oily nuts that are rich in nutrients and have been eaten by many Native American people for many centuries. However, since are quite a few and far between, they are not a very common nut to snack on a forest walk.

Is good for firewood?

Once the is free of moisture, it can make good firewood. However, since the is not very common, and makes for a very attractive piece of furniture, many consider it to be a waste to burn a for firewood.

How do you identify a ?

The easiest way to identify a is in the summertime when its appears. is a lemon shaped green that encompasses a tasty and protein-rich nut.

How fast do grow?

are a very slow-growing , barely growing 5 inches in a year.

How long do live?

Slow growing and short-lived, seldom tend to live past the age of 75 years old.

Why didn’t my grows nuts this year?

If a grew nuts one year and not another, this is because they produce in alternate bearing years. Trees are not like most flowers in that they every year in a specific season. For many of trees, not every year will be a heavy crop yield. Some years they may not produce any at all, or simply a lighter crop.

What does a nut from a taste like?

It is said that a nut resembles in flavor – very mild, slightly sweet, oily, and fatty. A rich and , eat can be eaten raw or cooked, young or mature.

How long does a take to ?

A will reach sexual maturity between 2-4 years of age and will produce in alternately bearing years until the end of its life, which is around 75 years.

What does the of a look like?

The of a is light gray, with vertically arranged random fissures. The ridges between fissures are smooth and platy.

How do you open pods?

Using a regular nutcracker will be successful in opening a nut pod. Otherwise, using a knife, and something sharp to crack it open may work as well.

Where do cankers come from?

cankers come from a that attacks the . The works by killing branches on the lower crown of a , where they will start to develop these uncontrolled cankerous growths. These growths act as wounds, which then make the vulnerable to other types of .

How long can survive with a ?

When a develops on a , it means that certain branches of the are already dead. Once this happens, the entire will likely die within 5 years of the original cankerous developments.

How can you tell the difference between and ?

The easiest way to tell the difference between a () and a , is through its . The of a is much darker in color, though the texture is pretty much the same.

Additionally, you can tell the difference between the two trees by their . The of a is much more round in shape, whereas the is more shaped like a lemon.

What do you think?


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