One thing humans and squirrels can agree on: It’s time to gather butternuts.

The seeds buried by squirrels are sometimes forgotten or lost, thus facilitating reproduction. A southern Minnesota native, butternut trees grow in rich forests, are seldom more than 40 feet tall, and have compound leaves about 15 inches long. They are made up of 11 to 17 leaflets. Some of the leaflets began showing golden yellow fall color as early as July 4, the earliest fall color each year.

Butternut’s fruit, when it falls with the early autumn winds, is a little more than 2 inches long, is oblong, pointed and greenish. It has sticky, rusty hairs on the husk that can leave a brown stain on fingers. The husk contains an orange-yellow dye once used for coloring homespun clothing. The green outer husk of the nut is difficult to remove. It can be taken off with a hammer. Or try running a car over it. After removing the husk, nuts should be dried for several months before cracking them to enjoy the edible kernels.

The butternut tree is an important member of the natural forest community, but we can also enjoy the sweet syrup or sugar made by boiling down its sap in the spring. The yield, however, is only a quarter of that of the sugar maple. The wood is used in furniture, cabinet work, interior trim, and wooden ware. It is still a favorite of wood carvers.


Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.