Can You Identify These Oblong Green Nuts?

We have the most artsy (FloydMinded) squirrels. Look at what they created!

I don’t think I’ve had anyone who has walked the margins of our pasture in autumn recognize these fruits. They are oblong ending with a sharp point, and somewhat resemble hickory nuts, but they have a soft rather than a stony-hard shell which is decidedly sticky when they first fall. Scratching them does not give off any clues as to their relationships.

This is White Walnut, or Butternut, so called for the oils of the nuts which was used to make a butter-like food by native Americans. Of course it is a close relative of the more common Black Walnut, which volunteers in abundance along the forest edge and the gravel road. (The nuts are dehisced and cracked by the few passing cars, then the crows, waiting for just such help, come down from their perches to eat the exposed pieces.)

You don’t see Butternuts so often in these woods. It is susceptible to a pathogen (a fungus that causes canker and slow death) but we have several that are large enough to produce fruits like you see here, gathered from five square feet along our pasture trail. There are so many in places hidden in the tall pasture grass that it is hard to walk.

I confess we’ve never collected, dried, cracked, picked out and eaten any. I think this year may be our first. I’ll give you a taste test report towards the end of the year.

The wood is soft and not sought out for furniture, but is prized by wood carvers, i understand, so will save my bowl-turning friends a piece, should we have a large limb blow down over winter.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. We have Butternut Bread around here and I may have heard my father reference a Butternut tree once or twice while we were out hunting Squirrels but to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen one. You say it is thin-hulled. That brought to my mind something my brother-in-law educated me about. He would point to a specific type of hickory tree and identify it as “a Chink-a-pen Hickory.” The Squirrels liked them as much at regular hickory nuts; I liked them better simply because they were easier to crack and eat while out in the woods.

    Reading your posts is like going back to school most of the time. You are so informative. I’ve often wondered just how many kind of Hickory Trees there are here in Kentucky. I know of three types myself.

    Thanks for the education Fred. Today was not a waste. I learned something new.

  2. There was a large bearing butternut tree at the home we bought near Christiansburg years ago. We ate the nuts, pretty good I thought. The old local neighbors called it a “White Walnut” tree. I was expecting something like Carpathian Walnuts, English Walnuts, but not so much.

  3. Going down memory lane, I recall eating this nut as a child when visiting family in Boones Mill, Va. It was such a treat to my siblings and I. I had to google the name to see if this was real as I share some of my childhood with my children and grandchildren who find the name extremely funny. We live in Charlotte, NC but frequently go home to Roanoke, Va to visit family. Is there a place to buy Chink-a-pens? This would be a wonderful family surprise!

  4. Kenju, where do you find sassafras root? Another childhood memory and delightful tea used to make everything feel better:)