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Butternuts: Majesty In Jeapordy

Butternut trees are part of the walnut family and an important source of edible nuts and valuable wood.

Generations of carvers and furniture-makers have sought butternut wood because of its softness and varied texture.  The wood is light in colour but is often stained to look black walnut, which has a high commercial value.  First Nations people used the nut oil for cooking, hair dressing, leather-making and for polishing tools and ornaments.

As their name suggests, butternut trees produce a delicious and nutritious nut with high oil content.  The nuts are an important source of food for birds and small mammals.

But butternut trees are in serious trouble; in fact the species is listed as endangered in Ontario by the Ministry of Natural resources. A species is classified as endangered if it lives in the wild in Ontario but is facing imminent extinction or extirpation

The reason for this decline is a fungal disease called butternut canker, which affects trees of all ages, all sizes, and on all sites.  Sadly, there is no know cure for the canker, and no butternut trees have yet shown proven resistance to the disease. However, researchers in the USA have found trees that are vigorously surviving.  Based on this experience, a group called the Ontario Butternut Recovery Team is working to locate trees in the province that may be resistant to the canker.   These trees may be included in a long term resistance screening and breeding program.

Wild, native butternut does best in open areas such as fence lines and overgrown fields where they can get full or at least partial sunlight. Butternuts do not tolerate shade well and eventually get shaded out by hard maples and other trees as a forest matures.

Butternut thrives on limestone soils with good soil moisture but can also be found on drier sites.  In the north Simcoe region, butternut trees are reaching the northern part of their range along The Land Between where the Canadian Shield and the limestone plains meet up.  Because of this, butternut trees are uncommon in this area.  However specimens have been found on several Conservancy properties including Prairie Smoke Alvar in Carden, the Alexander Hope Smith Nature Reserve in Washago, and Grant’s Woods outside Orillia.

The Couchiching Conservancy continues to document and monitor butternuts on our properties where a general decline in their health has been noted.

If you find what appears to be a native butternut tree growing on your property, you can be a part of the conservation effort by contacting the Ontario Butternut Recovery Team at the Forest Gene Conservation Association:  www.fgca.net.  The website has detailed information on identifying butternut and how to become part of the recovery effort.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources is also interested in hearing from landowners who have native butternut on their property.  Their Natural Heritage Information Centre website is : www.nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca