Set the Table with Butternuts
By Dorothy Read
The first appearance of their sticky, lemon-shape green husks marked the end of summer when I was growing up, so the annual harvest of butternuts was oh so bittersweet. Mom would send us out with paper bags, and we’d gather in abundance, at least whatever the squirrels did not find first. We knew there would be tasty rewards for our efforts.
The only real work of the ritual was releasing these tough nuts from their shells. Mom devised a clever way to open them with my father’s bench vise, but I’ve also heard stories of people driving their cars over the stubborn nuts!
I wondered how the squirrels did this so easily as witnessed by the perfect half shells we’d find all year on the forest floor.
The nuts are rich and buttery as their name suggests, and we enjoyed them raw and roasted, and in my mother’s traditional holiday nut bread.
While they were a lovely part of my childhood memories, I must confess that I forgot about them for a long time. When I moved to my current home, I set about the task of creating a new garden, one that proved to have a trouble spot; I could get nothing to grow vigorously in one corner despite soil tests and ample amendments.
Then, as the summer wore on, I discovered a lovely crop of those familiar sticky pods on the ground, and I looked up! I remembered that many nut trees contain a natural herbicide, so that mystery was solved. In fact, one should not put butternut or walnut leaves and debris in the compost heap for that reason.
Butternuts are one of the most delicious wild foods in the forest, but sadly they are seriously endangered from yet another imported disease, a fungus that causes a canker, slowly robbing the tree of vitality. These important trees are becoming rare. The butternut tree is classified as “a species of concern” worthy of conservation in our country. In Canada, the tree is listed as an endangered species.
There is hope, but right now, not a lot of people are working on the restoration project. For Dale R. Bergdahl, a former tree pathologist at the University of Vermont, saving the butternuts was an integral part of his working life for 30 years. Now, in his retirement, the passion to save the butternut continues.
“When I was at UVM we kept a long-term research project going with the U.S Forest Service, back to 1983,” he said. “In following those trees that long, what we found was some 75 percent mortality and very little regeneration. We have not found any that are immune, but some are tolerant”.
First, they lose their crown and it’s a downward spiral from there. The disease slowly kills the trees over 7 to 10 years. Some survive a little longer.
Specialists select disease-tolerant trees and graft them onto black walnut rootstock in special orchards designed to produce seeds. The black walnut tree is not susceptible to the canker, but it is close enough genetically that grafts will take. But it is a slow process. Tender, new shoots are harvested in the winter and sent to Missouri where they are grafted and returned.
“In 15 to 20 years down the road, we should have some good seed,” Bergdahl said. “But only about 10% will take. It’s a long-term proposition.” It will take decades of work, but the biggest challenge is that the money has dried up, so the Vermont project is not out actively looking for new trees. “Hopefully, we’ll find funding in the next three years,” he said. “At that time, we should return to those trees in the region to see how they are doing.”
At their prime, butternut trees thrived from Québec throughout the entire northeast quarter of this country. The trees provided a substantial source of protein and nutrition, wood, dye, and medicine for Native Americans and early colonists as well.
The native population planted butternut trees where they routinely gathered food, enhancing their supplies. The early colonists followed this example, cultivating the trees for their own uses. These nuts are well traveled; there is even evidence that when the Vikings visited the new world, they carried the nuts back to Greenland where their shells have been located at historic sites.
According to Bergdahl, one can still find old farmsteads with clumps of butternuts growing: “The trees were planted primarily for the nutrition of the nut, but they also used the wood for building as it is fairly light but sturdy, and the bark and nuts make a durable fabric dye. It makes sense it was a staple. The nut is very rich in terms of nutrient oils and was used raw, cooked, and in flours. It was also used for baby food!”
You’ll find the trees along rivers and streams, at the edge of a forest or field, or even growing among stone walls where squirrels have hidden nuts. And Bergdahl solved the riddle of how these tiny creatures open the nuts—they wait until they start to germinate on their own which naturally splits the nut apart!
While the restoration is in a holding pattern, there is a second threat to the trees. Nurseries are marketing hybrids that look and behave much like the original; so close, you must test the DNA to actually identify them.
“We ought not to be planting butternut seedlings from these remote areas contributing to ‘genetic pollution’ of the species” Bergdahl said, adding that it is better to restore the trees that have adapted to our climate over thousands of years.
“If you have a tree, don’t cut it,” he insists, “and let the extension service know its location. The biggest thing about the butternut right now is trying to conserve the material we have.”
And savoring what we have left at this point.
With a little luck, you might see the nuts at farmers’ markets or farm stands. Treasure them if you do, they are a rare find. If you don’t have a tree in your own backyard, ask around. You might have a friend or neighbor with one who could be enticed to trade nuts for your labor and a loaf of bread.
I’ve included my mother’s recipe, a family favorite! You can substitute walnuts, especially the native black walnut varieties, to keep your feast as local as possible.
Mom always spiced this bread with cinnamon, but I’ve added a little ginger to give it my own twist. You can make this gluten free, so don’t be afraid to experiment and create your own memories.
Dorothy Read is a freelance writer who lives in Bellows Falls. She has worked for local newspapers, magazines, and radio, and operates a small inn that specializes in traditional recipes served up with stunning local ingredients. She is currently working on a cookbook of vintage recipes with a modern twist.