Butternut in history
The walnut's country cousin
Everyone knows of the black walnut tree. Woodworkers love its wood. Bakers adore its nuts for the flavor given to bread, cookies, and pastries. And who hasn t enjoyed the challenge of picking the meat from a freshly cracked shell?
Did you know, though, that the black walnut has a cousin? It s the butternut (Juglans cinerea). And while its tan-colored wood rates just as beautiful in its own right, and its nuts equally satisfying, neither have become as well known.
Widely distributed across the north from New Brunswick to Minnesota and in the south to Arkansas and North Carolina, the butternut tree even looks somewhat like a black walnut. It never attains the walnut s tall stature nor graceful shape, however. And rarely does it grow to the girth and straightness preferred by lumbermen. Even landscapers shun it because the leaves brown early in the fall. Yet to country people, the butternut has always been appreciated.
In pioneer days, chips of its wood were used to brew a tasty beer. The oil from its nuts went into recipes and ointments. A dark dye extracted from the tree s inner bark turned cloth brownish-yellow. In fact, during the Civil War, Confederate soldiers often wore homespun uniforms colored with butternut dye.
Butternut wood, although lighter and weaker than black walnut, has its special place in woodworking. Because of its lightness, luster, and satiny texture when sanded, butternut was once favored for paneling in carriages. It s also stable and easily worked, especially by carvers, so the wood was and still is the classic stock for church alters and lecturns. Today not widely available to the woodworking public, butternut becomes veneer for the finest architectural installations and the wood of choice for many professional carvers.