By Becky Nelson
When taking our “grand-dog” for a little walk around the house the other day, I was thrilled to find the ground littered with butternuts. We have very few butternut trees on the property now, and this tree was probably grown from a nut lost by a squirrel, as it is not at all close to the others we knew were on the property.
Butternut trees are actually white walnut trees, a tree indigenous to North America. Like the walnuts we buy in the grocery store, these nuts are very oily and tasty, and make a unique addition to cookies and other baked goods. They are also great eaten right out of the shell, which is the way I preferred them as a kid.
My grandmother used to collect, and have us kids collect baskets full of butternuts. She would store them right in the baskets in the attic and let them dry for a year before cracking them. The nuts come wrapped in a sticky, fuzzy coating, and when left to bake in the heat of the attic, the coating became a crisp brown wrapper that was easy to remove. The nuts are deeply ridged, with sharp edges to ward off any creature wanting to eat them, but the nut meat inside is worth the struggle. Grammy had a specially made cast iron nut cracker that rested on her thigh, and she would crack the nuts with a hammer, hand them to us kids to dig the meat out and make a relaxing but productive rainy afternoon of the project.
I imagine the nuts were a welcome treat to many of my ancestors when they fell in late summer. We have a couple of young living trees around the farm, but most are just large dead trees now. The butternut is very susceptible to a fungal canker disease that is prevalent around the country, and it is now a threatened species. They are certainly a rarity around here, where some forty or fifty years ago they were thriving.
I gathered a bucket full of nuts and plan to tuck them in a corner of the garage to dry out, just as my Gram did. If I remember I have them next fall, I will find a nutcracker and go to work for nostalgia’s sake as much as to gain the nuts for eating.
When my husband and I joined my parents in partnership back in the 1980s, all of us chose Butternut Farm as our first choice of business name. We were disappointed to find that the name had already been registered with the state, so settled on our second choice of Beaver Pond Farm. I had the opportunity to visit the “other” Butternut Farm this summer. It is located between Rochester and Farmington, and is a lovely place with lots of fruit trees and a newly constructed hard cider facility. The farm has changed hands several times, and I doubt the new owners have as vested an interest in the Butternuts as the original owners.
That I can look back in my own past and share these little stories of something once as commonplace as a nut with my kids and my grandkids and try to imagine those before my Gram stooping to pick up the nuts, storing a basket in the attic to dry and cracking the shells to gain the meats before me on the same soil and with the same views and landscape, feels pretty special.
If you find a butternut on your walks, take it home, dry it, store it, then crack it when you think of it. And when you enjoy the delicious nut meat, think of all those who came before us and enjoyed this treat of native nature. The tree is in such a state of decline that the NH Division of Forests and Lands is very interested in starting a resistant strain of butternut to try to repopulate our native woods. If you know of a butternut tree over 10” in diameter that appears healthy, give the Division a call at 603-464-3016 to let them know of the tree and they may come take a look to see if it meets the specifications and shows the resistance to the fungus necessary to be included in the project and can be grafted to black walnut trees to try to gain a resistant butternut variety. I hope their research works. Our woods need butternuts.