Healthy supply of butternut is dwindling

The future of butternut's health remains bleak as the butternut canker disease continues to spread through its growing range. It appears that butternut's fate may be the same as the elm, which was devastated by Dutch elm disease, and chestnut, the victim of chestnut blight.

Since the discovery of butternut canker disease, Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum, in 1967, butternut has become increasingly scarce in the eastern United States and the upper Midwest. Healthy butternut is found mainly in extreme northern areas of this country and portions of Canada, but supplies are dwindling.

"I was surrounded by the stuff growing up in northeast Vermont and we would collect the nuts from it when we'd go out and collect firewood," says Parker Nichols of Vermont WildWoods in Marshfield, Vt., a wood supplier who deals exclusively with butternut. "Then the trees just stopped giving nuts and in the early-to-mid '80s the forester said you have to get these things out of here. That's when this butternut canker came through so we've been dealing with it since then. I would say the percentage of healthy trees is around 2 or 3 percent; it is a very small percentage."

If there is any hope for butternut's survival, it is in that small percentage of what appears to be healthy trees. Foresters and loggers are being urged not to cut the healthy trees. Dealers like Nichols refuse to buy logs or lumber that come from trees that, at least up to this point, appear to be unaffected by the blight.

"My theory would be to leave the trees that are healthy," says Lou Irion of Irion Lumber Co. in Wellsboro, Pa. "You can't shoot yourself in the foot. It's like these guys who want to fish until the last fish is gone from the ocean ... you prolong your living for two years and ruin it for everybody. If there are 10 percent of the butternut trees that survive, they should be left because hopefully they will regenerate and the genes are right for healthy trees."

"I think if it became popular and people harvested it, it would endanger it," says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa. "I think you could make a case for putting it on the endangered list right now because there are those that say why would you keep cutting it when one of 10 trees might be blight-resistant? Just as they found chestnut trees that were blight-resistant, then you have a future stock to come back with by crossbreeding it with the blight-resistant ones."

Butternut (Juglans cinera), also known as white walnut, is a relatively small tree, reaching heights of 40' to 60' with diameters usually between 1' and 2'. The shade-intolerant trees are rarely found in stands. Butternut has many uses including furniture, cabinets, paneling, flooring, specialty products and millwork. It is an excellent carving wood. Butternut has a light-brown color with darker zones, but it is much lighter than black walnut (Juglans nigra). The narrow sapwood is white.

"The blight is doing its job very well," Hearne says. "Places two or three years ago where we were getting good live logs in New York state, they're now coming in as dead logs. The range is definitely diminishing all the time. But, on the other hand, there seems to be a developing market for wormy butternut and we actually get extra for that. I think it is a more beautiful wood than chestnut. Wormy chestnut is appealing and I think that butternut is more appealing."

"People are able to see [wormy butternut] as a beautiful material and the knot doesn't necessarily have to mean rustic when used in the right way," adds Nichols.

Butternut is moderately light in weight (specific gravity .36), has a coarse texture and is usually straight-grained. It has excellent working properties and sharp cutting edges are recommended because of the softness of the wood. Butternut takes a rich, lustrous finish.

"Butternut is another wood in the equation," explains Irion. "If you like variety, it fits between a light and a dark wood. There are very, very few of them. You have your walnuts and mahoganies; you've got your maples ... [but] there aren't a lot of intermediate-type woods. So we just figure if we have to sit on it, that at least some day when somebody really needs it, we'll have some."

Butternut is sold in a variety of grades and thicknesses ranging from 4/4 to 16/4. Pricing for 4/4 FAS butternut starts around $3.75/bf for narrow widths (3" to 5") and increases to well above $15/bf for widths in the 12" to 16" range. Wormy butternut is sold in a similar price range and a select grade is offered by some dealers at a slightly lower price.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.