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Photo: Leaves of butternut tree.
Leaves of butternut tree. (Image courtesy Ken Sytsma, University of Wisconsin-Madison Botany Department.)

Butternuts Protected in Oregon Orchard

By Marcia Wood
June 29, 2005

Butternut trees yield rich, buttery-tasting nuts that some people know as "white walnuts." The tree's wide, leafy canopy adds beauty and shade to parks and home gardens. Also, wood from this native hardwood and walnut-family member makes fine cabinets, paneling, trim and furniture.

More than a dozen different kinds of butternut trees are flourishing in an Agricultural Research Service orchard in Corvallis, Ore., about 85 miles outside of Portland. The orchard is part of the ARS National Clonal Germplasm Repository, curated by research horticulturalist Kim E. Hummer.

The Corvallis trees, now 13 years old, have begun to bear nuts, according to Hummer. A butternut type know as Ayers, originally collected in Michigan, has produced the largest nuts of any in the collection.

Its notable neighbors include Creighton, from a Pennsylvania community where its sweet-tasting nutmeats made it everyone's favorite; Chamberlain, from New York, thought to be the hardiest butternut tree in the research orchard; and Craxezy, a Michigan tree named for its unusually easy-to-open shells.

ARS-funded plant-collecting forays by two U.S. Forest Service scientists are pinpointing unique butternut trees that should be represented in the collection. This year, the plant explorers will hunt for the best butternut trees in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

To propagate trees for the Corvallis collection, the plant explorer--with each landowner's approval--cuts butternut branches and grafts them to a rootstock to form a new tree.

The Corvallis repository is part of a nationwide network of ARS-managed collections that protect crop plants and their wild relatives that might otherwise be lost forever to urban sprawl or attack by insects, disease or other natural enemies. For instance, butternut is vulnerable to a disease, butternut canker, that has wiped out 80 percent of the butternut trees in some Eastern states.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research organization.