What Is a Butternut Tree?

Christina Edwards
Christina Edwards
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Known scientifically as Juglans cinera, the butternut tree is a type of nut tree native to parts of eastern North America. It can be found growing in forests in this area among a number of other tree species. The nuts of this tree are often harvested in the fall for culinary use.

The butternut tree is actually a type of walnut tree. In fact, it is also sometimes referred to as a white walnut tree, because of the color of its seeds. The seeds, like walnuts, are edible and commonly called nuts.

This tree can be found growing in most eastern parts of the United States. It can grow as far west as Minnesota, and as far south as Alabama and Arkansas. Typically, it will not grow in the southernmost states. This tree can also be found in the southeastern parts of Canada.

Butternut trees usually prefer loose, well drained soil. Like many other types of trees, they also thrive in very fertile soil. These trees can often be found growing in forests next to rivers and streams as well as on rocky slopes.

A butternut tree typically shares its habitat with a variety of other types of trees, especially hardwoods. Basswood, beech, birch, and elm trees are some examples of trees that may be found growing around butternut trees. Also, these trees will often be found in groups, rather than solo.

The bark of a butternut tree is ridged and usually light gray in color. This tree often grows to be quite large, reaching heights of around 60 feet (18.3 meters). It also has a large spread, which can sometimes be more than 50 feet (15.2 meters) across.

It is a deciduous tree, which means that it loses its leaves in the fall. In the spring, however, new leaves begin to emerge. The leaves of the butternut tree are compound leaves, made up of an odd number of leaflets. Between 11 and 19 leaflets, anywhere from 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) long, usually make up one leaf, which can be up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) long. These leaves are typically yellowish green in color.

When a butternut tree is around 20 years old, it will begin producing clusters of butternuts. The husks covering the nuts are usually shaped a little like a lemon, and they can be as long as 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). During the summer, these are usually covered with sticky green hairs.

The nuts are typically harvested in the fall. Since the husks can stain skin, many people wear gloves during this process. They are then left to dry, and eaten after the husks have dried completely and become brown.

Discussion Comments


I'm not sure if anyone here is familiar with white walnut wood, but it is beautiful. Like you would probably expect, it looks a lot like walnut wood in terms of the grain, but the wood is much lighter in color. It is similar to white oak's color.

At the college I went to, the entire student union was covered in white walnut. Since the tree is so uncommon, I read somewhere that the university bought over 60 percent of the nation's butternut that year just to build the union.

One of the reasons butternut is so uncommon now is that there is a disease it gets that slowly kills the trees once they get to a certain size. They still aren't endangered or anything, but finding one in the woods or finding somewhere to buy the wood is quite a treat.


@stl156 - I would echo what kentuckycat said. Butternuts are fairly uncommon unless you know where to look. Like the article says, they generally grow in groups.

Tree identification for the butternut can be kind of tricky since they are very similar to black walnut. There are a couple of good ways to pick apart a butternut from a walnut, though, if you know what to look for.

The easiest way to tell if you can see the leaves is that butternut trees will almost always have the "terminal" leaflet, which is the one by itself at the very tip. Black walnuts will often loose these. The other way to tell is by the bark. Butternut bark is identical to black walnut except the bark is distinctly white or grey (giving it the name of white walnut). Black walnut on the other hand will have the darkest bark of any tree in the woods.


@stl156 - Butternuts, in general, are considered a fairly rare tree, I believe. I know that I have seen a couple of them planted in parks and such, but I have never seen a wild one out in the woods. To be honest, they are so uncommon where I live that I'm not sure I would recognize one if I saw it. The leaves look almost identical to those of the black walnut tree. I'm not sure exactly how you are supposed to tell them apart.

As far as eating the nuts goes, I wouldn't see any problem with it. I wouldn't expect them to be as good as what you get in the store, though. Nut producers get their nuts from trees that have been grown in orchards and have been specially bred to have sweeter fruit. The ones you find in the wild will probably be a little bit more bitter and probably a little bit smaller in general.


I have eaten the nuts of butternut trees before, but never really knew what the tree itself was like. The article says that they grow in the eastern U.S. but doesn't say how common they are throughout that area. Can you find butternuts in most forests, or are they kind of rare?

I live in an area with a lot of forests and woodlots. If I knew where to find butternut trees, I would be interested in going out and collecting the nuts to eat. I am assuming that you can eat the ones that fall to the ground, right? The ones I have had have always come from the grocery store.

Are there any other tips or tricks for finding them besides just walking around looking for the leaves?

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Woman holding a book
      Woman holding a book