I was planning its demise all week and thinking about whom to blame. Would it be Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with a wrench, Professor Plum in the kitchen with a candlestick, or maybe Mrs. Peacock in the study with a lead pipe?

None of those would have been the correct answer. Had I gone through with the murder, the one to blame would have been the director in the field with a saw.

Luckily, it was case of mistaken identity and no massacre needed to occur. This was truly a close call,though. On a walk through the sanctuary recently, I noticed a plant that looked like the dastardly invasive, tree of heaven (Ailanthusaltissima). It had the right compound leaf, was growing in a disturbed area and seemed to be proliferating quite rapidly.

It turned out, though, that in this case I didn’t have a clue. Although it resembled the villainous invasive, it was actually not thatoffender. The difference is in thedetails. The leaves of the tree of heaven have a distinct glandular tooth along the base of eachleaflet. My tree’s leaflets were smooth and lacked that tooth.

What was I thinking? I must have been nuts not to notice thedifference. My tree quickly went from a bane to abenefit. With a bit more sleuthing, I concluded that it was a butternut or white walnut tree.

Butternuts (Juglans cinerea) are native to the eastern United States and are in the walnut family. To properly identify them (though you might not want to take it from me), look for the distinctive furrowed light grey bark, pinnate leaves with smooth leaflets, and drooping clusters of large lemon-shaped fruits that contain a tasty nut.

This nut and the tree from which it falls have long been valued. Farmers planted this tree close to the house on their farmsteads, which explains its location and presence at Felix Neck, which was a farm for over 300 years.

Not only is the oily nut edible, but the husk of the nut (which smells citrusy) and bark of the tree have historically been used to dye cloth. Orange to light yellow and even dark brown colors can be produced with thisplant. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were derisively called butternuts, referring to their faded uniforms which resembled the colors produced from this tree.

While it takes the tree up to 20 years to produce the nuts, it could be argued that it is worth the wait, especially when you consider the food value of the nuts. They can be used in the same manner as black walnuts (though they are smaller and harder to shell), and are a critical ingredient in traditional maple walnutcandy. Harvest them in October or even a little earlier if you have a taste for thesour. One unique recipe calls for harvesting them just before ripeness and pickling thenuts. 

Beyond the niceties of the nut are its medicinal values. During the American Revolution, extract from the bark was used to prevent smallpox and treat dysentery and other stomach ailments.

Unfortunately, butternuts are not very common anymore. The reduction of farms and short life span (only 75 years) of this tree have been a part of theirdecline. But the most common cause of their disappearance is the butternut canker, which is a fungus that has infected more than 90 per cent of butternuts in NorthAmerica. Once diseased, it is unus ual for this tree tosurvive. 

Since Felix Neck still has a few healthy specimens, I will enjoy the fruits of someone’s labor and will be harvesting these nuts throughout the month. It is lucky that I got a clue and solved the mystery before it was too late.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.