Butter nuts, also known as white walnuts, are the rich sweet fruit of the butternut tree (Juglans cinerea). They grow wild throughout the forests of the Northeast (Range Map), though they’re increasingly rare due to a disease that’s killed nearly all of the native woodland population.
Aptly named, they’re a lot like conventional walnuts but without any of the characteristic bitterness. Some people liken them to pine nuts because of their creamy nut meat and mild flavor.
My first introduction to butternuts came shortly after moving to Vermont. I was selling baked goods at a farmer’s market and a man stopped by with his daughter. He didn’t have any money on him, and the little girl was just dying for a cupcake.
I offered to just give it to her, but her dad had a better idea. He ran back to his truck and pulled out a big box of butternuts and gave it to me in trade.
I’d never heard of butternuts, and I had no idea what a rare treat I held until I looked them up upon arriving home. (The man also happened to be a justice of the peace and a few years later, he married my husband and me in a small ceremony, with that same little girl serving as flower girl and witness. Small world…)
Ever since that day at the farmer’s market, I’ve been looking for wild butternut trees. The problem is, the wild population is being devastated by butternut canker, which spreads rapidly and kills infected butternut trees. Their bark is distinctive, and just about every time I find one in the woods I look up to see a bare, dead crown.
After more than 10 years of searching without a single butternut, I’d figured it was hopeless…until literally tripping over a healthy, mature butternut tree.
While out walking with family in mid-September, my 2-year-old took a bad fall, seemingly for no reason. Like one of those comedic slipped on a banana peel cartoon falls. My husband looked down in the grass and ecstatically held up fresh butternut!
This butternut tree had been hiding in plain sight on a path we walked every fall. With a trunk that was 10-12 feet around, the two of us could barely touch hands hugging around it. Butternut trees grow fast in full sun, but nonetheless, that tree had been there a long time.
Just a few weeks later, a friend from a local foraging group tipped me off to a huge butternut tree growing on public land. My whole family packed up, and we literally drove an hour and a half across the state on the chance that we’d be able to harvest a few more nuts.
It paid off, and we harvested butternuts by the bucket full. We went home with over 100 pounds of butternuts!
I’ve been told by a friend that works in the state natural resources conservation district that the state of butternuts is not altogether hopeless. Originally, they were tracking living healthy butternut trees in Vermont, thinking they were on their way to extinction, but that a few isolated trees might survive. What they found was thousands of mature, healthy butternuts with no obvious signs of the disease thriving across the state.
Juglans cinerea only had a brief stint on the Vermont endangered plants list, and its future looks promising. A decade ago, a four-year-old handed me a box of butternuts, and this fall there were still plenty for my 4-year-old to find.
With any luck, they’ll still be around for her 4-year-old someday.
While butternut canker is devastating to the historical butternut population, it looks like they just might make it in the end.
There are still plenty of butternut trees thriving in the woods, you just need to know how to identify them…
Butternut Tree Identification
If you happen to trip over butternuts sometime between mid-September and mid-October, that’s obviously the easiest way to find them. Butternuts are distinctive football-shaped nuts wrapped in a fuzzy green husk.
I say fuzzy, and I mean it. There’s a very short velvet on the outside of the nut husks, and it’s a bit resinous and sticky. Press a finger into the side of one, and it’ll stick to your finger long enough for you to lift it up for a few seconds.
Black walnuts, on the other hand, have round smooth husks. The trees look quite similar and they ripen at the same time, but the husk shape and the fuzzy/sticky husks are a dead giveaway.
On the tree, butternuts grow in clusters. Usually, they’re just a handful of nuts together, but I’ve read reports of clusters of up to 40 butternuts hanging together.
The nuts fall when they’re ripe, so avoid picking clusters of butternuts from the tree.
I’m hoping to get back and take a few pictures of the nuts in earlier stages of development next year, but for now, this cluster is just about ripe.
Butternut Tree Bark
While tripping over butternuts is nice, it’s not all that common. More likely, you’ll identify butternut trees by their distinctive bark.
Butternut tree bark is ridged, with silvery raised portions and darker intentions. Sometimes the color contrast isn’t as dramatic, but the ridge pattern is always there.
The ridges form a diamond pattern, and it’s more dramatic on some trees than others.
Butternut Tree Leaves
The leaves of butternut trees have alternate, pinnately compound leaves that are more or less identical to black walnut leaves. Spotting the distinctive leaves in the canopy will help you identify this tasty nut, but you’ll need to dig a bit further to positively ID butternuts.
At a casual glance along the side of the road, the pinnately compound leaves look quite similar to wild elderberries and wild sumac shrubs. Those are low-growing and not trees, but if you’re just cueing off the leaves, you may well find other tasty wild edibles.
Butternut Leaf Scar
Young trees can be especially hard to identify, as the bark isn’t yet distinctive as it is in mature butternut trees. The same problem occurs in the wintertime, without the leaves attached.
Wintertime, however, is actually a great time to identify butternut trees because of the distinctive leaf scar. If you break off a leaf from a tree in the growing season, the leaf scar isn’t helpful. Wait until the butternut tree goes dormant and take a look at the leaf scars.
This week I was playing tag in the woods with my kids at our local park, and I was literally slapped in the face with the dormant branches of a young butternut tree. No leaves to be seen, and the bark wasn’t ridged yet, but the monkey face leaf scar with fuzzy eyebrows means I found a baby butternut tree!
Husking Butter Nuts
I’d heard that butternuts were like black walnuts, notoriously difficult to husk and crack. In reality, butternut husks come off quite easily and the nuts crack simply as well.
The first time I harvested butternuts, we only had about 50 nuts and I just took a sharp paring knife and scored the husks before popping them off with my hands.
This method is simple, clean and effective with a small number of nuts, but it is time-consuming.
Samuel Thayer’s book A Forager’s Harvest warns against husking butternuts by driving your car over them. While it does work, a car is overkill, and it puts micro-cracks in the nutshells beneath, causing the nuts to go rancid prematurely.
Butternuts will keep in the shell for years, so there’s no reason to damage the shell if you can avoid it.
Instead, he suggests placing the nuts on a table, narrow side up. Then giving them a careful blow with a hammer or rubber mallet. That causes the husk to pop off a nutshell.
This method worked incredibly well, and a single sharp strike with a rubber mallet was all it took to remove most butternut husks.
If the nut was slightly underripe or too freshly fallen, the husk really clung and wouldn’t come off. Allow those nuts to rest another few days until the husk starts to yellow and then the husk will pop right off.
This method worked wonderfully for most of the nuts, and the remaining just rested for another few days before husking.
At this point, you’ll have a lot of butternut husks. The husks themselves take up about 2/3rds the volume of your butternut harvest.
Butternuts, like black walnuts, contain juglone which inhibits the growth of other plants. The husks are full of the compound, and shouldn’t be put into the compost. Even using wood ash in the garden after burning black walnut or butternut wood will spread the compound.
It’s really pervasive, and the best place to spread the husks is in the woods near juglone tolerant trees like maple.
While this method was very easy, it was quite messy. Butternut juice splattered everywhere and stained badly. The juice from fresh nuts is clear, and you won’t see it right away. Within a few hours though, it stains whatever it touches brown to black.
My hands didn’t stain at all when I husked the nuts with a paring knife, so I got cocky and thought that butternuts must not stain as badly as black walnuts. I was wrong…
My hands turned black and stayed stained for about 2 weeks, and my arms and chest were speckled with butternut juice that splashed with the mallet impact. I look like a dalmatian…and I’m just glad none managed to hit my face.
After husking, butternuts need to cure for a few weeks before they are ready for eating or storage.
Place the nuts on a tray, ideally in a single layer. Turning them frequently will prevent any clinging pieces of husk from molding, and allow them to dry and fall off.
Leave the nuts in a well-ventilated area for about 3-4 weeks to cure before storage or use.
Once the nuts are cured, it can be tricky to crack them. I cracked a small batch with a hammer, which was effective but sent pieces flying everywhere. While butternuts aren’t quite as tricky to crack as black walnuts, this haul has definitely convinced us to invest in a nutcracker.
After a lot of research, we just ordered this nutcracker that has plenty of great reviews and apparently works great for black walnuts and other hard to crack nuts. If it goes through black walnuts, it’ll be great for these too.
After all this work, what does butternut taste like and how do you use it?
For the most part, butternut tastes like a walnut but without the astringency or tannin. Assuming you’ve husked the nuts promptly, and the husk hasn’t had a chance to degrade and seep into the husk (which makes them bitter), a butternut should be sweet and mild.
Think of the flavor of pine nuts, but in the shape of a walnut.
It can be hard to find recipes that use butternuts, largely because they’re so rare and not something you’d buy in the grocery store. That said, butternuts can be used anywhere you’d use either walnuts or pine nuts.
I especially love the idea of making a pesto with butternuts, since we can harvest them locally and most purchased pine nuts are imported from overseas.
With a bit of searching, I found one recipe using these tasty nuts, and it even includes a bit of acorn flour. We have trays of acorns curing that will become flour later this fall, so these butternut cookies are on the agenda for sure!
A big part of our goal in harvesting butternuts was finding healthy parent trees so that we could plant their nuts. If the parents are healthy, there’s a good chance the seeds may contain genes for resistance to butternut canker.
If you’re going to plant the nuts, they need to be kept moist and cold over winter. Do not husk the nuts!
Instead, start by drilling a few holes in the top and bottom of a 5-gallon bucket. Place the nuts in the bucket with moisture-retaining materials like woodchips, peat and a bit of compost. Seal it up, and bury it outdoors for the winter.
This video describes the process in detail:
The nuts need to cold stratify to break dormancy, and once things warm up in the spring, they’ll begin to sprout.
Make sure the bucket has a tight-fitting lid, and maybe include a few garlic bulbs in there to distract and confuse voles/squirrels/etc that would try to break in.
The following year, plant out the sprouted nuts, ideally by direct seeding. Butternut trees produce a long taproot, and they do best if direct-seeded in their permanent location. This can be tricky because rodents like to dig up the new seedlings once they sprout.
If you do decide to plant them in a protected nursery bed, be sure to transplant them to a permanent location within 1-2 years at most to avoid damaging the root.
This video describes the process of growing butternut trees from seed in a protected nursery bed:
Other Fall Foraging Guides
Looking for more tasty wild edibles to harvest in the fall? I’ve got you covered:
- 50+ Wild Fruits and Berries to Forage
- Foraging Aronia Berries
- Foraging Beechnuts
- Foraging Wild Plums
- How to Cook Dandelion Roots
- Foraging Burdock
Foraging doesn’t stop in the fall, you can keep on harvesting all winter long with this winter foraging guide.