You guys, I found BUTTERNUT! … Maybe!
No, not a feral squash … or even an invasive domesticated squash overtaking the rest of my garden. (I already knew where that was!)
Nope, what I found was evidence of a butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) when I picked up a funny shaped nut. I’d assumed I had a better chance of finding morels than butternut trees, thanks to a fungal disease (cleverly called ‘butternut canker’) which had largely decimated the wild population. The Maryland Biodiversity Project even categorizes butternut trees as “state rare”.
But I found one, less than a mile from my house. And then a week later, I located another possible butternut near a friend’s house in Washington county. One of the key characteristics is the shape of the nut. The hull has a oblong, almost football shape. The nut inside has a prominent beak on one side.
Butternuts are cousins to the more prevalent black walnut (Juglans nigra). I haven’t foraged black walnuts because they feature thick, black-staining hulls and difficult-to-crack shells. Accumulating enough nutmeat for a recipe or snacking takes significant time and effort. Additionally, the flavor of black walnut does not appeal to everyone. You can sometimes find black walnuts in grocery stores, if you want to taste them to decide if they are worth the effort. (Or Amazon.com. Everything is on Amazon.)
(Immature black walnuts can also be used to make a liqueur called nocino, but I’ve already missed the window for this particular experiment.)
Butternuts, by contrast, are described as having delicious nutmeats…buttery flavored, even. I haven’t tried it yet because the butternut-shaped-nut had a cracked hull, so the nut inside was probably compromised.
I couldn’t tell the potential butternut tree from surrounding black walnut trees. Also I have struggled to tell black walnuts (or butternuts) from staghorn sumac or tree of heaven (especially at a distance). They all have compound leaves with pointy, lance-shaped leaflets. Staghorn sumac tends to be shorter (35 ft), and up close the leaves have serrated margins. For females, the red drupes are a dead giveaway. Tree of heaven is more problematic, because the trees can grow as tall as black walnut (80 ft). But if you get close (i.e., not gazing at trees flying by as you hurtle down the interstate), the bark is a smooth light gray versus the deep furrows of walnut bark.
In the summer though, you know for sure if you have a black walnut if you spot the round green shapes of future nuts in the trees.
To complicate butternut identification, there are also hybrid butternuts, which the nuts shown below may have been. Note their less pointy shape than the nut in the first picture. It can be hard to tell the hybrids from the full butternuts, but hopefully either will be just as tasty.
Apparently some years butternuts produce a good crop, and some years there is no crop at all. I’ll definitely be back to check on both trees later this year to harvest the actual nuts.
Everyone recommends wearing gloves or plastic bags over your hands when removing the hulls to prevent staining, unless “diseased” is the look you are trying for. I have read suggestions for stomping the nuts, or driving over them with cars. You can also use a wooden board with a hole in it, and a mallet or second board to force the nut through hole, scraping off the hull. Other sources recommend just using a sharp knife to peel away the husks. (Carefully, of course!)
The nuts are also very difficult to crack. Regular nutcrackers aren’t up to the task. One book recommended pouring boiling water over the nuts, letting them stand for 15 minutes and then trying to crack the shells with a hammer tap. Butternuts can be eaten right away, unlike black walnuts which should be allowed to fully dry and ripen in their shells for several weeks or months.
Will all the work – identifying, harvesting, hulling, shelling, and finally using the nuts – be worth it? Stay tuned! We’ll find out!