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Endangered Butternut trees are worth protecting

A healthy nut from a Butternut Tree

Majestic and important, butternut trees have been experiencing a significant decline in recent years so much so that they are now listed as an endangered species.

Butternuts are members of the walnut family and as their name suggests, they produce an edible and nutritious nut. The oil from the nuts was important to the First Nation people for a variety of purposes including cooking oil, hair styling, and tool polishing. The tree was also tapped for syrup and the wood of the butternut tree is valued for its colour and texture by wood carvers and furniture makers.  As part of the local food movement, commercial and hobby nut producers grow native butternut trees.

In the wild, the seeds of the butternuts are much sought after by wildlife including squirrels and other small mammals.  Squirrels help spread the trees range by caching the nuts throughout the forest. Often these forgotten stores of nuts will sprout, producing new butternut seedlings.

The province is home to one of the northernmost populations of butternut trees, and it is possible that one of these populations hold the key to the survival of the species. In Ontario, Simcoe County represents the northern range of butternuts and can be found growing in the deep, limestone-based soils found in our region.

Native butternuts are relatively short lived, usually surviving 75 years to 100 years. They do not tolerate shaded conditions and are usually found either individually or in small groups growing alongside other hardwoods such as maples and ashes.

Many landowners in the area have butternut trees growing on their properties. However, a butternut growing in an urban setting such as a front yard is possibly a domestic form or a hybrid.  They look very similar but have several distinct, and not so distinct, differences. For example, hybrids typically produce a higher yield of nuts than the native species, often annually, and the leaves stay green well into the fall.

The decline of the butternut tree is due to a harmful fungus, called a canker. It infects and often kills healthy trees of any size. The canker can readily be identified on an infected tree by the tell-tale signs of sooty or black oozy patches on the roots or trunk of the tree.

For several years, there has been a significant effort by various government and non-government agencies to assess and monitor the health of butternuts across the province.  Another component of the project is to investigate methods of propagating healthy, disease-resistant individual trees through cuttings and seed planting.

This summer, the Couchiching Conservancy has partnered with the Ministry of Natural Resources to continue with the important conservation efforts of the butternut trees in the region.  Part of the project will include initial assessments on butternut trees on Conservancy-managed properties.  It is hoped that healthy trees can be found on these lands to help with the recovery effort.

A trained Conservancy contract staff person, Gayle Carlyle, has begun re-assessing butternuts studied in previous years.  These include trees on Simcoe County forests, provincial parks, City of Orillia parks and privately-owned land.  She has also started visiting Conservancy-managed lands, with more to be assessed in the coming weeks.  To date the work has produced some encouraging results: Several very healthy butternut trees have been located.

Gayle Carlyle is a volunteer and private contractor with the Couchiching Conservancy, which currently helps protect more than 11,000 acres of natural land in the region.