The Butternut is one of our native trees that produces one of the more unique nuts. It’s football shaped shells are unmistakable for any other domestic nut and tastes delicious. But this tree also grows fast, has interesting bark, and makes a nice crown as well. But it does produce Juglone, which can harm certain species of other plants and inhibit their growth.
But in this article I will cover everything you need to know about this unique American tree.
In this article:
- What is Butternut Tree
- What are the benefits of Butternut Tree
- Identification / Characteristics
- Nut harvesting / processing / storage
- How to grow and care for Butternut Tree
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Butternut Tree
- Where to buy Butternut Tree
- Uses of Butternut Tree
- Final thoughts
What is Butternut Tree
The Butternut Tree is a deciduous hardwood tree native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Juglans cinerea, it grows up to 100’ tall (30 m) and 36” diameter in full sun an moist well draining soil. Producing edible nuts enjoyed by both humans and animals alike, it also hosts numerous insects.
Although once plentiful, it’s numbers have fallen drastically since the 1950’s, mainly due to disease and habitat loss. But, nonetheless some disease resistant selections have been identified. Still, for a time it was placed on certain state’s endangered species lists.
I spend a lot of time in the woods and hiking. And I can attest to this tree’s rarity, as I’ve really only come across a few specimens in South Central Pennsylvania. This could partly be explained by it’s shorter stature and lifecycle, but it is likely the Butternut Canker fungus plays a significant role in reducing it’s numbers.
Native Range of Butternut Tree
The native range of Butternut is primarily the upper Midwest and Northeastern United States. From Minnesota South to northern Arkansas, then East to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and up to New England and southern Ontario and Quebec.
Butternut Tree Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Juglans cinerea|
|Common Name(s)||Butternut Tree, White Walnut, Oil Nut|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||Eastern North America, USDA hardiness zones 3-7|
|Bloom Duration, Color||Yellow-green catkins|
|Spacing / Spread||40-60′|
|Light Requirements||Full sun|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam to clay loam|
|Moisture||Moist to slightly dry, well-drained|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Hosts several moth species, much wildlife eats the nuts|
What are the Benefits of Butternut Tree
The Butternut tree hosts various species of moth and butterfly. The nuts are eaten by chipmunks, squirrels, and even some birds while developing in early Summer.
The nuts produced by the Butternut tree have a sweet and buttery flavor. They can be eaten raw, roasted, as a topping for ice cream or salads. And can even be baked into breads or cakes.
Butternut trees make an interesting shape, have lovely foliage, and unique bark. The numerous compound leaves make a great scene on windy days. Several of them growing together can make for an interesting sight.
Identification and Characteristics of Butternut Tree
The trunk of Butternut trees will typically grow 40-60′ tall (up to 100′ / 30 m). If grown out in the open, it will form an oval crown. Grown in a forest, or with irregular lighting it will grow towards the sun, or in an irregular manner.
The bark of Butternut trees is thick irregular ridges that run vertically and are generally vertical, although at irregular angles. The appearance is quite unique but somewhat reminiscent of Chestnut Oak.
The leaves of the Butternut tree are odd-pinnate compound leaves that grow up to 20″ long by 10″ wide. Individual leaflets are ovate to lanceolate in shape, and 4-6″ long by 1-2″ wide, with finely serrated margins. The color is dark green on the upper side, and a lighter green underneath with prominent veins.
Male flowers on Butternut trees will produce slender catkins 2-4” long, while female flowers occur on short terminal spikes on the current years shoots.
Pollinated female flowers will eventually form nuts that grow throughout the summer. They usually occur in clusters on the tree, similar to Black Walnuts.
The root system of Butternut trees will produce a taproot with wide spreading lateral roots.
The Butternut tree can grow up to 24″ per year in optimum growing conditions.
Juglone and Butternut trees
Like other members of the Juglans genus, the Butternut Tree will produce Juglone. Juglone is an allelopathic chemical that is harmful to various species of plants, and helps the Butternut tree promote it’s own growth at the expense of other species. It is excreted mostly in the roots and fruit husks.
Nut of the Butternut Tree
By late summer early Fall, nuts will have formed at the site of pollinated female flowers. They are encased in a green husk.
The nut of the Butternut tree is an oblong/obvoid with pointed ends, almost like a football that looks a little to long. It is usually 1.5”-2.5” by 1” diameter (husked). The kernel of the nut has a sweet taste. In fact many consider Butternuts to taste better than Black Walnut.
Butternut vs Black Walnut
The easiest way to differentiate a Butternut from a Black Walnut is to examine the shape of the nut. Black Walnuts in the husk (and shell) are spherical and round. While Butternuts are oblong and more football shaped. But both trees will grow in similar conditions, and they each have compound leaves…making it a bit more difficult to identify.
Butternut Tree nut Production
Butternut trees typically begin producing nuts at 20 years, and will continue up to about 60 years of age. Ever second to third year will typically produce a bumper crop.
By late Summer / early Fall, once the nuts will begin to fall naturally. However you want to gather the nuts while still on the tree, as this will reduce the chances of insect infestation.
The nuts can be collected and stored for several days while the husks begin to rot naturally. However, care should be taken to use a netted sack or something that allows airflow, as the decomposing husks can generate much heat via microbes.
There are several different methods for removing the husk. Efficient methods include rolling in a cement mixer with water, placing in a 5 gallon bucket of water and churning with a drill w/ paint mixer attachment, or even just driving over them and rinsing afterwards.
The best way to crack the shell to access the nut meat/kernel is to use a proper ‘overbuilt’ nutcracker. I’ve used this specific model, and it works great on all manner of tree nuts.
Other methods involve using a rock or hammer to smash the nut on concrete, or using a bench vice.
To remove the meat or kernel of the butternut, it is best to use a small pair of wire cutters. Use them to pinch at large chunks.
Storing nut meats
Nut meats / kernels will stay fresh for 3-4 weeks in a bag. They can be eaten raw, roasted, or used in recipes as a substitute for walnuts or similar ingredients.
Butternuts that have been husked and shelled can be stored long term by freezing in sealed plastic containers or zip-lock bags.
Grow and Care for Butternut Tree
Butternut trees prefer full sun, which is at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. They can tolerate partial shade, which is 4-6 hours of sunlight per day.
But, they are not tolerant of overhead shade. They will not survive being out competed by taller trees such as Oak, Cherry, or Hickory.
When it comes to soil texture or soil type, Butternut can grow in many types of soil as long as significant organic matter is present. It will not do as well in compacted soils that are devoid of organic matter.
For moisture, Butternut will grow best in moist to slightly dry soil that drains well. And although it likes moist soil, the soil really needs to drain well as the Butternut tree is not that tolerant of flooding. 
For maintenance, one may thing they will have to deal with cleaning up all the nuts. And that could be true if your tree was near a street, as the nut husks could stain concrete. But in reality the squirrels and chipmunks are going to clean up most of the nuts over a the course of a few weeks.
The first Butternut tree I found just as nuts were beginning to ripen. I gathered some for planting and eating, figuring I would come back in a few days to gather more that had fallen. When I came back a week later, there were no nuts anywhere to be found! The squirrels had taken them all.
Butternut trees do not require supplemental fertilizer. It can however be helpful to more quickly establish a new sapling.
How to Grow Butternut Tree from Seed
Before we can grow nuts from seed, we must first harvest them. You should harvest Butternuts in late Summer or early Autumn, just when they begin to fall naturally. However it is better if you gather your nuts directly from the tree as this will avoid the chance of insect damage, and before the squirrels quickly gather them all up.
Husks are easily removed from Butternuts if they are left on for a week or two in order to soften. Once softened, you can simply rub the nuts on a gravel road, drive over them with a car, or use a chef’s knife or hunting knife to cut and then peel it off.
Once the husk is removed, you should rinse the nuts to get away any trace of the husk. This will help prevent bacteria or mold growth.
Before attempting to plant any nuts, one should float test them to ensure they are viable. The float test is a rather simple procedure that has proven valuable in detecting Butternuts that are malformed or damaged kernals/nut meats, that would be non-viable.
To perform the float test, simply take your de-husked Butternuts and place them in water for sixty seconds. Any nuts that float after sixty seconds should be rejected and discarded. Any nut that sinks, it should be considered viable.
For more background and info on the float test, as well as some summarized scientific studies, see our write up here.
Stratification of Butternuts
In order for Butternuts to germinate it is necessary for them to undergo a 90 day cold stratification period. This can be accomplished by cold stratifying nuts in a moist sphagnum-peatmoss and sand mixture in a ziplock bag, or by winter sowing. Winter sowing is by far my preferred method though, as it eliminates most of the guesswork and let’s mother nature handle the stratification process for you.
In the fridge
Before cold stratifying nuts in the fridge, one should sterilize the nuts by immersing them in a 1:10 bleach water mixture for sixty seconds. Once it has passed through this sterilization procedure, rinse them in cold running water again.
To cold stratify in the fridge, simply use a 1-gallon zip-lock bag and fill it half-way with a moist mixture of 50/50 sphagnum peat moss and sand (yes, play sand is fine). The moisture level should be that when you squeeze a handful, only a few drops fall out.
Place your Butternuts inside this mixture so that they are buried and completely surrounded by the mixture. Close the bag, but leave a large air gap and place it in a refrigerator for 3-4 months.
Check the medium every week if mold has formed, and so that the sand is not drying out. If so, discard the medium, re-sanitize the nuts, and place them in a new batch of moist medium, back in the fridge for the remainder. 
Before I explain Winter Sowing, you should know that we have a great step by step guide to Winter Sowing available here. It may answer any further questions you have after this article.
To Winter Sow Butternuts, we need to first determine what container you should use. Since Butternuts germinate hypogealy and immediately start putting down a taproot, you need a tall container. I recommend using a pot that is at least 9” deep.
If planting multiple nuts in a large-dimeter deep pot, make sure you have a plan for separating the seedlings soon after germination. You don’t want the roots to become entangled.
Fill a suitable container with moist potting soil. The potting soil should be moist, or even wet. For Winter Sowing, excess moisture doesn’t matter.
Butternut planting depth
Plant Butternut Tree seeds 1-2” deep. Tamp the soil firm, but don’t over-compact it. Then, place your container outside in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. And, protect it from squirrels by placing chicken wire or hardware cloth over it.
During the coldest parts of Winter, you should bring the container to inside of an unheated garage or shed. Now, I have had my Butternuts freeze solid for long periods of time (they germinated), but I don’t recommend you do so.
Periodically check the seeds to make sure the medium has moisture. Do not let the soil dry out.
Germination of Butternuts will occur in Spring. The cotyledons are contained inside the nut, so it will germinate and draw energy from them and begin building the tap-root. The first true leaves will show up later.
Establishment of Butternut trees
You should try to transplant Butternut seedlings to their final location relatively soon after you can see the first true leaves. It is possible to keep them in a pot for their first year, but this will likely harm tap-root development.
Only water containers in the mornings, and keep the containers in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. This is important to prevent damp-off disease, which is a fungus that can kill seedlings. 
Direct Sowing Butternuts
Butternut can be direct sown in Autumn. Now, doing so without any float test or protection could result in planting non-viable nuts, or having them be dug up and eaten by Squirrels before Spring.
But, to direct sow Butternut you simply can plant the seed 1-2” deep in the soil and cover. Protecting nuts with a piece of hardware cloth or chicken wire that is weighted down will protect it from mammal predation.
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Butternut Tree
Grackles have been documented eating/damaging immature fruit on Butternut trees. 
There are some insects that will damage Butternut trees. Various bark beetles, wood borers, nut weevils, husk flies, and lace wings will feed on parts of the tree destructively. The most serious pest would be the Butternut Curculio, which will damage young stems and fruit. And several insects are considered the primary vectors for a fungus that is decimating Butternut populations throughout it’s range.
Recently it has been found that Butternut will support development of the Spotted Lantern Fly through it’s first instar. However after the first instar the larvae move to other species.
Deer and Rabbits
Deer browse young tender foliage of Butternuts. And there is a risk of rabbits chewing on the bark in harsh winters. Young trees should always be protected with a cage. A plastic tree shelter will not work on Butternut, as their large compound leaves are too constrained by the ‘white tube’ tree shelters.
Butternut Canker is a potentially fatal disease that is thought to be responsible for most of the decline of Butternut trees across America. It is a fungus, Sirococcus clauigigenti-juglandacearum. The symptoms are branch dieback in the lower crown and stems. Cankers will eventually show on these branches, and spores released from them will be transferred to the main trunk via rainwater. Eventually the whole top dies, and other cankers girdle the main trunk. Trees generally die within several years. 
It is thought that this disease is responsible for all but eliminating Butternuts in North and South Carolina. Restoration methods, including making hybrids are being investigated to preserve the species.
Bunch disease Bunch disease is a condition where numerous buds that are normally dormant sprout, resulting in a condition that looks like a ‘witches broom’. Branches that are infected do not go dormant in fall, resulting in them to die by frost. If severe enough, the entire tree can be killed. 
Where you can buy Butternut Tree
Butternut Tree is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.
Uses of Butternut Tree
Butternuts can be used in residential landscaping, particularly near bodies of water where the surrounding tree population can be controlled. This is important, as Butternuts are liable to be shaded out by taller trees.
In the image at right you can see several Butternut trees growing next to a lush Spring in mid-Summer. These trees had a lot of nuts on them, which I’m sure fed a good number of squirrels last year.
The Butternut can grow well with many other trees, but one should know that it is not shade tolerant. So, if it is eventually overtaken by taller Oaks, Maples, or Hickories, it will likely be fatal. But for a selection of trees that can grow well with Butternuts:
- Black Walnut
- Pin Oak
- Swamp White Oak
- Red Oak
- White Oak
- Red Maple
- Silver Maple
- Eastern Redbud
- Virburnum sp.
Butternuts can be grown to produce nuts. Nuts can be commercially viable or for homesteading / home cooking uses. The sweet & buttery flavor of the Butternut can make great tasting breads and cakes, or as a topping in salads, ice cream, or as a substitute for walnuts.
The wood from Butternut trees is generally clear, stains and finishes well, and generally looks nice. It is used in cabinetry, doors, and smaller projects. I’ve occasionally seen it for sale from small independent lumber dealers.
Native American and Medicinal Uses
Over 50 uses of Butternut Tree have been documented by 11 different Native American Tribes. Most uses were for food, as the nuts can be readily stored if protected from rodents. But many medicinal uses exist as well.  Some selected uses include the following:
- Bark was used as an infusion for antidiarrhea medicine, for treating toothaches, and a laxative
- Sap was used as a cathartic
- A decoction was used to treat venereal disease, a de-wormer for people, and for urinating pain.
- Bark would be chewed then applied to open wounds
- Dyes were created from root, husks, and inner bark
- Oil would be extracted from nut meats for use on hair
Butternut is a deciduous hardwood native to North America that really has a lot of interesting characteristics. From food production, wildlife uses, to all the Native American medicinal uses this tree has a lot going for it. One hopes a cure or disease resistant variety can be located, as while not endangered as of today, that may not be the case in 10 years.
One hopes more people would consider growing it and including it parks or nature trails. As there it could have a safe home and be monitored for any signs of trouble.
 – Juglans cinerea, USDA NRCS. Accessed 15MAY2023.
 – Rink, George. “Juglans cinerea L. butternut.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 386-390.
 – Nesom, Guy. BUTTERBUT Juglans cinerea. USDA NRCS Plant Guide. 2003. Accessed 15MAY2023.
 – Brosi, Sunshine L. “Steps toward butternut (Juglans cinerea L.) restoration.” University of Tennessee (2010).
 – Karban, Richard, and Robert E. Ricklefs. “Host characteristics, sampling intensity, and species richness of Lepidoptera larvae on broad‐leaved tress in southern Ontario.” Ecology 64.4 (1983): 636-641.
 – Crystal, Philip A., and Douglass F. Jacobs. “Morpho-physiological responses of butternut (Juglans cinerea L.) and naturally-occurring hybrids to drought and flood.” A A 1: 1-1.
 – Brennan, Andrea N., and Douglass F. Jacobs. “Seed propagation protocol for pure and hybrid butternut (Juglans cinerea L.).” Tree Planters’ Notes 63.1 (2020): 39-50. Archived 31MAY2023.
 – James, R.L. 2012. Damping-off. In: Cram, M.; Frank, M.S.; Mallams, K., eds. Forest Nursery Pests. Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 115–116.
 -Gall, Lawrence F. “Evolutionary ecology of sympatric Catocala moths(Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). II. Sampling for wild larvae on their foodplants.” Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 29.3 (1990): 195-216.
 – Katovich, Steven A., and Michael E. Ostry. “Insects associated with butternut and butternut canker in Minnesota and Wisconsin.” The Great Lakes Entomologist 31.2 (1998): 2.
 – Murman, Kelly, et al. “Distribution, survival, and development of spotted lanternfly on host plants found in North America.” Environmental entomology 49.6 (2020): 1270-1281.
 – North American Ethnobotany Society. “Juglans cinerea L.” Accessed 31MAY2023.
American Bellflower is a herbaceous biennial wildflower native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Campanula americanum, it grows 2-6' tall in full sun and medium-moist, well-draining...
Large Flowered Tickseed is a showy, short-lived perennial native to central and eastern North America. Scientifically known as Coreopsis grandiflora, it grows 1-3' tall in full sun and well drained...