Their Goal: Saving the Butternut Tree

Their Goal: Saving the Butternut Tree

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

Butternut country is so distinctive that Parker Nichols knows he has arrived even before he sees the first butternut tree. As the proprietor of Vermont WildWoods, a flooring and millwork company in Marshfield that specializes in salvaging diseased butternut trees, he’s seen much of Vermont’s butternut country.

As he turns off the paved road onto a dirt road, and then onto an even smaller dirt road to the log-landing, he often finds himself surrounded by big maple trees, ashes and basswoods. Then, he’ll spot it—the first butternut tree – on a hillside, a favorite spot for butternut. The trees also like light, so they grow in clearings caused by fire, logging or heavy winds. And they like limey soil. Nichols notes that ginseng and wild ginger, two other lime-loving plants, often are found near butternuts.

Nichols is on a mission. Butternut trees are being threatened with disease, and he wants to help save them. His company will pay good money for an ailing tree—but only on the condition that any healthy butternut trees in the stand are left alone. A butternut stricken by butternut canker, a fungus, is scarred with football-shaped wounds, which sometimes ooze. The tree fights back by growing over the wound, but the fungus usually wins. The tree dies when its trunk has so many fungus-caused wounds that the trunk is girdled, and no nutrients can pass back and forth between leaves and roots.

Butternut canker was first identified in Wisconsin in 1967. Nobody knows its original source; but because it is so good at killing butternut trees, it’s generally thought to have been introduced to North America. The theory is that if the disease were endemic butternuts would have developed resistance to it long ago.

“Butternut is declining rapidly,” says Dale Bergdahl, a retired University of Vermont forestry professor, who has been studying butternut canker and is considered a leading expert on the disease. “In Vermont, we are at 60 percent mortality now. In Maine and New Hampshire, they were at 30 percent mortality as of last year.”

The trend has been consistent and dire. “A restoration effort is our only hope” for the species’ survival, Bergdahl says.

Bergdahl’s work with butternuts is in two major areas: researching how the fungus is spread, and locating healthy butternuts trees that can be used in future restoration efforts.

The fungus is spread when falling rain splashes the fungus spores from one tree to another, Bergdahl says. But fungus spores can travel far and fast on the bodies of insects, a pattern especially obvious in New Hampshire, where diseased stands are sometimes miles apart. Bergdahl has found sticky fungus spores, sometimes millions of them, on 17 species of insects capable of flying from tree to tree.

Bergdahl is currently working for the U.S. Forest Service to locate butternut trees in the Northeast that appear to be disease-resistant. Eventually, cuttings and nuts will be taken from these trees to create nurseries of resistant trees.

In New Hampshire, Kyle Lombard, a forest entomologist with the Division of Forests and Lands, oversees the state’s efforts to propagate butternut “super
trees,” that show no signs of the disease despite growing near trees that have it. Both Lombard and Bergdahl want to hear from private landowners about the location of healthy butternut trees. Bergdahl (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) will assess such trees for possible use in restoration efforts.

Bergdahl is especially interested in locating groups of 10 to 15 trees in the same general area. Ideally, some of the trees will have the butternut canker, and others will be healthy.

Nichols looks for the same thing: mixed stands of healthy and diseased trees. “For my own business, I need the dead ones,” he says. Through Vermont WildWoods these diseased trees are turned into architectural design elements – from beams in a steakhouse in Atlantic City to flooring in an upscale clothing store in California.

“It’s sad that these trees are dying,” says Nichols, but he believes his business is helping the remaining butternuts survive by alerting loggers to the trees’ plight and giving them incentives not to cut the healthy ones.

Madeline Bodin, is a science and wildlife writer from Andover, Vermont.

  1. Tom Dillon → in Plymouth VT
    Sep 16, 2008

    I have 200 plus nuts from my tree and was wondering what to do with them. Can I start new trees from the nut, eat them etc.?

  2. Jen → in Dola, Ohio
    Sep 22, 2008

    I have black walnut and butternut trees in my yard. I would like to grow more and save the butternut. I do not think they are sick. Please help me to know how to grow more.

  3. Virginia Barlow → in Corinth, VT
    Oct 07, 2008

    From Shari Halik, formerly a butternut researcher at University of Vermont:

    You can definitely eat the butternuts if you can get to them before the squirrels do!  I’m sure there is info out there on drying and cracking and recipes. 

    You can also plant the nuts, but again you have to make sure the squirrels don’t dig them up.  I’ve heard of people using wire mesh or even cow manure to fend off the squirrels!  Sometimes the nuts take a couple years to germinate.  They do need a period of stratification, or cold (refrigerator temperature) and moist, before they will germinate, which they naturally get outdoors in the winter.  When using butternut seed in my research projects, I kept the nuts in moist peat moss in a cooler for 3 months and then planted the nuts 1-2 inches beneath soil in pans.  As they germinated, I transplanted the seedlings to individual tubes or pots.  When transplanting the seedlings to the field, they struggled, but butternut seedlings are pretty hardy.  I have several coming up on my property in Vermont and also have a couple mature trees that haven’t been infected by the canker fungus.  I’m not sure how long they will remain healthy, but there is always hope.  If you have a lot of nuts, I would try different things, dry some, keep some moist in a refrigerator over the winter, plant some this fall, plant some in the spring. 

    Good luck!

  4. Jane Leitheiser → in Blaine, Minnesota
    Oct 02, 2009

    I can’t find recipes anywhere for butternuts. Can you help me find at least one recipe if not more? Thank You

  5. Debbie Bowers → in Maryland
    Aug 07, 2011

    We cant find any recipes for butternuts either. Queries just bring up butternut squash. I would assume black walnut recipes would work.

  6. thomas rehm → in butler, pa
    Oct 15, 2011

    I have several butternut trees on my 20 acres here in western PA. Some are advanced in their canker disease, but still producing nuts. This year many of the nuts had husks that were very full of bright yellow maggots. I have been unable to find anything about these prolific worms. I am most curious to know what they are and what they will turn into. They do not seem to be harmful to the nuts, but make the job of husking rather revolting.  Anyone know what they are ? thanks, Tom

  7. Tim Casey → in Riceville. PA
    Nov 03, 2011

    We have a similiar acreage (25) to that of Thomas Rehm in Butler, Pa.
    Ours is located in Riceville, Pa, about 25miles south of Erie. The climate is a bit cooler and the winters produce considerably more snow cover. To this point I have only located one Butternut on our parcel. The tree is located between our cottage and the highway and I believe to be an offspring from the large rotted stump located beside the the existing tree. The tree is approximately 8” in diameter and seems to be in good condition except for one larger branch that seems to be dead.

    This fall was the first time I was at the Cottage to experience the 95% fallout of the Butternut Bombardment. This small tree produced three wheelbarrow loads of nuts. After planting a few hundred of the nuts in another location on the property, I began a mass diposal approach. Groundhog holes, etc.- I don’t have a squirrel population
    so I had to take the situation head on.

    I was extremely interested in Virginia Barlow’s experience and helpful comments for handling larger volumns. I did not open any of the nuts therefore cannot comment on the presence of the yellow husk critters.

    This is my first exposure to canker infestation but I will be following this topic closely.My grandchildren need to also experience the Butternut Bombardment in the future.

    Tim Casey -Breckenridge, CO Nov.3,2011

  8. brian cain → in sharon vt
    Jun 22, 2012

    I live on 30 acres in Sharon Vermont.As cabinet maker I have harvested many standing dead butternut trees.The largest exceeding 30 inches at the stump.As a woodworker and guitar builder I regard this wood right up there with mahogany for its workability and beauty.There are no harvest-able trees left on my land, but in recent years I have found many young trees coming along. Some as big as 6 inches at the but with no sign of disease. I’ve got my fingers crossed. I love this tree. If anyone knows where I can get clear quartered butternut in excess of 8 inches, I’m looking.

  9. Whitney → in Brandon VT
    Jul 15, 2012

    We love putting butternuts in our chocolate fudge (the recipe on the back of the marshmallow fluff jar)!

  10. Steven Judge → in Royalton Vermont
    Jul 18, 2012

    I own a small farm in Royalton VT.  Our house was built in 1798 and it is surrounded by six specimen butternut trees of various sizes and ages the oldest perhaps being 100 years old, or older.

    We purchased the property in 2001.  The Butternut were covered with Black Canker and in serious decline.  I have experience with specimen trees so I decided to try and save them.

    I believe one problems that Butternuts have is due to the enormous amount of foliage they produce and loose each year.  I think they suck the nutrients right out of the soil especially in they are not in a forest location with plenty of organic matter.  Mine are surrounded by lawn.

    I started to heavily fertilize them by going around their approximate drip line with an iron bar and poke several holes in the ground which I then fill with a high nitrogen fertilizer.  I do this every spring.  They have recovered nicely though the Canker is still there.  My major problem now is limbs occasionally breaking due to crotch rot and the weight of new foliage.  I have had them trimmed, especially the tree that overhangs our house.

    The second problem I have discovered with butternuts is that some trees are viciously attacked by ants and other bugs at the base of their trunks.  I keep an eye on them and put bug spray and or powder on the trees’ trunks at ground level at the first indication of bug damage.

    All in all, the trees are fairly stable now and I see new growth each year.  And they have begun to produce nuts once again.


    Steve Judge

  11. Pat → in VT
    Dec 26, 2012

    Does anyone know of someone who got fungal pneumonia from working with diseased butternut wood? This seems like it could be likely when a woodworker used butternut wood that had fungus growing in it.

  12. Jerry → in Manteo N.C.
    Jan 28, 2013

    I have been studying this problem ,trying to determine what has been done,discovered, recorded.
    I had thought all one had to do was grow a lot of seedlings in pots,cull the deseased,innoculate the survivors ,then line out those surviviors. It seems innoculation by passes the defence system,thereby eliminating promising genetic material without field testing. That might be OK if the there were enough survivors to work with. The info does not indicate that. Could the potted plants be put out in an area exposed to natural infection? It seems like a lot of wasted work to put out untested stock in the ground to let it die. What spacing would one use?Could not be too close because of the allelopathy.That additional stress would mess up any resistance
    So,how do you test the resistance without destroying that resistance We need early culling of severely suseptible plants before lining out the stuff you are looking for


  13. Sandy → in Madison, Ohio
    Mar 14, 2013

    I am very interested in planting a Butternut tree. Where can I find a more mature tree,so I will get nuts sooner?  Also can I plant a Butternut with a Heartnut for pollination, or do you have to plant 2 of same variety for proper pollination? And if so, can they be planted within a half mile within each other?




  14. Leslie → in Vermont
    Nov 02, 2013

    My mom has 2 butternut trees on her property. One is very old and only produces a few nuts a year, I doubt it is infected I have not seen signs of it.  My sister told me of another and I will check it out this spring, and contact you of it looks good.
    My question is: I would like to purchase a few butternuts from Arbor Day Foundation, do you feel they may be a bit resistant to or am I just gambling?

  15. Martin Terry → in Westerville, Ohio
    Jun 18, 2015

    My wife and I just acquired a farmhouse and 6 acres in Delaware county, just NE of Franklin county in Ohio. On this property is what I believe to be one of the oldest and largest butternut trees in the world.  At the base, the trees circumference is more than 20 feet! This tree looks like it has been standing since the Revolutionary War.  Trying to preserve this tree.  It is producing some nuts currently.

  16. Rob Hutchins → in Hartland, VT
    Nov 27, 2015

    I have forty acres in Hartland and wood like to get some butternut nuts from healthy trees to plant in my woods. Does anyone know where I could find 50 or so?

  17. Michelle → in Barre, VT
    Mar 01, 2016

    I have a butternut tree on my rental property in East Barre area. It produced a ton of nuts this past fall and I’ve collected them in an overflowing milk crate. I’m thinking of trying to start a few but not sure what to do with the rest ... If anyone wants some contact me asap.

  18. Jackie → in Waterford, VT
    Mar 25, 2016

    I have several mature butternut here in Waterford. Contact me if anyone is interested in determining the health of the trees here.

  19. Dorothy → in Bellows Falls, VT
    Mar 30, 2016

    In response to Sandy in Ohio, I was talking to a grower in Pennsylvania today, and he said that the Heartnut is indeed a good pollinator for a Butternut tree. I have only one tree in my yard, and it had few nuts last year, so I think its pollinator friend may have either died or been removed. As for recipes, you can substitute butternuts for any walnut recipe, only since I grew up with the butternuts, I think they are much better!

  20. Tom P → in Cape Elizabeth, Maine
    Jul 12, 2016

    Some beauties on my property in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. . . ,

  21. Heather K → in Bridgewater, VT
    Sep 08, 2016

    The Butternut nut I planted in front of our house 20 years ago for shade has yielded it’s first single nut this year.  The original seed came from Ash street in WRJct. I will plant the new seed here on our farm in Bridgewater along with seeds from a huge Butternut from my husband’s childhood home.

    As a woodworker by trade for the better part of my life, Butternut is one of the most satisfyingly beautiful wood to work. The term “Chatoince” (sp?), pronounced sha twance refers to the shimmering effects caused by Buttenut’s natuarally curvy grain.

    As a homeowner, it’s a beautiful shade tree with the convenient habit of dropping all of it’s leaves at once come the sunshine after a hard frost…....making fall cleanup chores a one shot deal.

    I encourage everyone to plant as many Butternuts as they can find. .....and put it where you want it…..a long fast-growing taproot makes transplanting problematic after the first year or two.

  22. Jeannene → in Waupaca, Wi
    Sep 15, 2016

    Just noticed my 18 year old has Canker,  what should I do?  Let grow, cut down? If I cut down should I harvest nuts, let critters have?

  23. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Sep 16, 2016

    I’d let it be, Jeannene. It could still have decades of life left in it.

  24. Ken P → in Dryden, NY
    Apr 16, 2018

    I grew up with butternut trees on our 47 acre”farm” and learned how to crack the nuts open from my father by using a block of firewood and a hammer.

    As an adult with my one family we had a few butternut trees on the 5 acres we called home for 31 years and those trees would produce a bushel or two of nuts about one year out of three. Fast forward to four years ago when we moved into a smaller house but with a big enough yard to host two large, mature trees and two that are just barely big enough to produce a few nuts. I was thrilled two years ago when the two large trees produced 15 five gallon pails of nuts. Imagine my delight when in the fall of 2017 I picked up 60 five gallon pails of nuts, primarily from the two large trees.  Truly a labor of love but I enjoy sharing them with anyone who shows some interest and is willing to go through the trouble to crack them. 

    If anyone is willing to pay the postage I am willing to ship them some nuts.  I have way more than I can keep up with.

    To the person(s) asking for recipes, I will share my favorite which is sure to elicit rave reviews from both butternut aficionados as well as those who have never tasted a butternut and didn’t know what they were missing.  Simply use your favorite pecan pie recipe and substitute butternuts for the pecans. I wager that only a few people on earth have ever eaten a butternut pie!

  25. Rebecca → in Oregon
    Oct 08, 2018

    I worked for a man named Larry Smitton, in Pendleton, Oregon and he had about 2 acres. He had 2 Butternut trees on his land. Larry was so proud of his 2 trees. He had brought them back to Oregon and planted them.  Every fall he would go out and gather the nuts and dry them. He had a special way of cracking them. He would nip of the tips and then put them in a vice and squeeze the nut until it popped open.

    He has passed on, but I always wonder if the 2 trees are still there. He also brought back with him a Lodi apple tree and other fruit bearing trees that are Heirloom varieties.

    The Butternut trees did very well in Pendleton, Oregon.

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