Wild Edible Plants: Butternut (Juglans Cinerea)

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) also known as White Walnut, is a species of walnut native to the eastern United States and southeast Canada. Its range extends east to New Brunswick, and from southern Quebec west to Minnesota, south to northern Alabama and southwest to northern Arkansas. It is absent from most of the Southern United States.

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea)

It is a deciduous tree growing to 20 m tall, rarely 30 m, and 40–80 cm stem diameter, with light gray bark. The leaves are pinnate, 40–70 cm long, with 11–17 leaflets, each leaflet 5–10 cm long and 3–5 cm broad. The whole leaf is downy-pubescent, and a somewhat brighter, yellower green than many other tree leaves. The flowers are inconspicuous yellow-green catkins produced in spring at the same time as the new leaves appear. The fruit is a nut, produced in bunches of 2–6 together; the nut is oblong-ovoid, 3–6 cm long and 2–4 cm broad, surrounded by a green husk before maturity in mid autumn. Butternut grows quickly, but is rather short-lived for a tree, rarely living longer than 75 years.

Butternuts are the easiest of the native tree nuts to harvest and process! They are remarkable, in the sense that they will remain fresh, edible and good for more than 25 years if the uncracked nuts are kept dry! Butternuts although are messy to harvest, much as black walnuts are. Both fruits turn your skin and clothes brown and can be used to make a dark brown to black dye.

Butternut Tree (White Walnut)

To process butternuts, simply gather them up from under the tree while wearing cotton gloves. Place small quantities in mesh bags (such as those onions are sold in) about 10 lbs per bag. Hang them up in a dry place (garage or barn, etc.) until the husks dry up. You need the husks on the nuts to crack them. Do not remove the husks!

After the husks are dry, take a nut and hold it between forefinger and thumb on one end of the nut on a large stone or anvil, and hit it with an ordinary hammer. A little practice will give you a feel for how hard to hit. Throw the whole cracked nut into a large pan where you can sort out the nut meats from the shells and husks after finished cracking a quantity of them.

Furthermore, I consider the flavor enhanced by a little light roasting. Place the nut meats on a cookie sheet in a 150 degree oven for one hour. Then place the nut meats into half=pint canning jars. Put on the lids and rings but do not tighten the rings. Place the jars back in the oven, still at 150 degrees, for a half hour or so, then remove and tighten down the lids immediately. Place the processed jars out to cool. You’ll hear the lids pop one by one, telling you that your butternuts are vacuum packed. They’ll be fresh, crisp, and delicious for as long as a year when packed this way!

A disease known as butternut canker affects the butternut trees across their native range. The disease is of a fungal nature and has no cure as of 2011. Butternuts also face threats from bugs like the butternut curculio and bark beetles. Butternuts can cause problems too. Just like the black walnuts, butternuts generate a chemical from their root systems that will seep into the surrounding soil. This toxin, called juglone, prevents the growth of some species of plants, including rhododendrons, azaleas and crops such as potatoes and tomatoes. The husks of the nuts produce a dye that seeps out and stains whatever it touches, including human hands.

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Fruit Hanging on Tre

Edible Parts

  • Oil
  • Sap
  • Seeds

Seed – eaten raw or ground into a powder and used with cereal flours in making cakes, biscuits, muffins, bread etc. Oily and sweet tasting with a rich agreeable flavor. The oil in the seed is not very stable and the seed soon becomes rancid once it is opened.

The kernel is usually only about 20% by weight of the whole seed and is hard to extract.

The unripe fruit can be pickled. The seed is 3 – 6cm in diameter and is produced in clusters of 3 – 5 fruits. An edible oil is obtained from the seed, it tends to go rancid quickly.

The sweet sap is tapped in spring and can be used as a refreshing drink. It can also be boiled down to a syrup or sugar, or added to maple syrup.


A yellow to orange dye is obtained from the seed husks and from the bark. It is dark brown. It does not require a mordant.

The seed husks can be dried and stored for later use. A light brown dye is obtained from the young twigs, leaves, buds and unripe fruit. It does not require a mordant.

The leaves can also be dried and stored for later use. A black dye is obtained from the young roots. Plants produce chemicals which can inhibit the growth of other plants. These chemicals are dissolved out of the leaves when it rains and are washed down to the ground below, reducing the growth of plants under the tree.

The roots of this species produce substances that are toxic to many plant species, especially apples (Malus species), members of the Ericaceae, Potentilla spp and the white pines (certain Pinus spp.).

Wood – coarse-grained, light, soft, not strong, very attractive. It weighs 25lb per cubic foot. It is not as valuable a crop as the black walnut (J. nigra), but is used indoors for furniture, doors etc.

Medicinal Uses

Butternut was used by various native North American Indian tribes as a laxative and tonic remedy to treat a variety of conditions including rheumatic and arthritic joints, headaches, dysentery, constipation and wounds. In modern herbalism it is considered to be a valuable remedy for chronic constipation, gently encouraging regular bowel movements.

It is especially beneficial when combined with a carminative herb such as Angelica archangelica. The quills or inner bark are one of the few potent laxatives that are safe to use in pregnancy.

Butternut also lowers cholesterol levels and promotes the clearance of waste products by the liver. An infusion of the inner-bark is used as a cholagogue, febrifuge, mild laxative and stomachic. It is effective in small doses without causing cramps. The bark is best collected in the autumn. Best collected in late spring according to another report. An infusion of the dried outer bark is used in the treatment of toothache and dysentery. The oil from the nuts is used in the treatment of tapeworms and fungal infections.

Where Does Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Grow?

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Growing Area

How To Identify Butternut (Juglans Cinerea)

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Leaf / Leaves
Alternate, pinnately compound, 15 to 25 inches long, with 11 to 17 oblong-lanceolate leaflets with serrate margins; rachis is stout and pubescent with a well developed terminal leaflet; green above and paler below.

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Flower
Monoecious; male flowers are single-stemmed, yellow-green catkins, 2 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches long; females are on a short spike near the end of the twig, green-yellow in color, appear in mid to late summer.

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Fruit & Nut
Oblong (lemon shaped), with a yellow-green sticky indehiscent husk; husk contains an irregularly-ribbed nut containing sweet, oily meat; mature in late summer.

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Twig
Stout, may be somewhat pubescent, yellow-brown to gray, with a chambered pith that is very dark brown in color; buds are large and covered with a few light colored pubescent scales; leaf scars are 3-lobed, resembling a “monkey face”; a tuft of pubescence is present above the leaf scar resembling an “eyebrow”.

Butternut (Juglans Cinerea) Bark
Bark: Light, ashy gray, with flat top, shiny ridges, developing diamond shaped patterns.


3 Responses to “Wild Edible Plants: Butternut (Juglans Cinerea)”

  1. thanks for your help identifying the “Butternut” aka White oak. My husband found some on the road, and we went back, only to find years of “old hulls” and a few unopened which allowed me to identity it. we live in Edgewater Park, N.J. and have an Organic Green Cafe, so we are always looking for “local eatables” I understand they begin to fall, late summer. Do we lay down a cloth, and wait for them? shake the tree? because it’s way to tall to actually pick. All suggestions welcome. Carole and Bill Moore, Organic Green Cafe, 1101 Cooper St, Edgewater Park, NJ 08010 609-871-9555

  2. We have tons of Black walnut trees, and too many squirrels, so if any body wants some nuts to harvest in the fall, just let us know. we’re at 1101 cooper St, Edgewater Park, N.J. 08010 or call 609-871-9555 and we’ll vector you in. Bring your bucket/basket.
    Carole and Bill Moore

  3. Amy says:

    Under “how to identify” I think you meant “opposite”, not “alternate”.

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