Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Juglans cinerea

White walnut, oilnut

By Scott Sheu

This species of walnut is less common than its cousin, the black walnut, but nonetheless has an interesting and long history of human usage.  The dye of the butternut was commonly used during the Civil War to dye uniforms, so much so that Confederate soldiers were commonly referred to as “butternuts.”

Geographical Origin

            The butternut tree is native to eastern North America, ranging from southern Quebec down to Alabama and as far west as Minnesota and Arkansas.  The American Indians favored the nut in their diets, but it also became a staple of early settlers.  Despite its importance, the butternut tree has declined since the advent of European settlers and is now sparsely found in the wild due to its susceptibility to cankers.

Botanical Description

            The butternut tree is a small to medium deciduous tree that can grow up to 40-60 feet tall.  The dark green leaves are covered in hairs and are arranged in leaflets that grow to around 10-20 inches long.  The bark of the butternut is light gray color in contrast to the dark bark of its cousin the black walnut.

            The fruit of the butternut is longer than it is wide, as compared to the spherical nut of the black walnut.  The nut is deeply ridged and comes enclosed in a green and hairy husk.  If not picked at the right time, the nut can easily turn rancid.

Culinary Usage

            The butternut is an oily and rich nut.  Though it has always been popularly eaten on its own, the butternut was also prepared a variety of ways by the American Indians.  The Iroquis had some of the most varied and interesting uses for the nut.  The fresh nuts were crushed and boiled and served as either baby food or a drink (Moerman).  The crushed nuts were also used for breads, puddings, and sauces as well as mixed in to dishes such as mashed potatoes.  The oils of the nuts were also used to flavor dishes (Erichsen-Brown).

            The butternut tree can also be tapped for sap.  Numerous tribes used the butternut sap much in the same manner as maple syrup.

Other Usages

            The most famous usage of the butternut is the soft yellow-brown dye that is extracted from the inner bark by boiling it.  From the American Indians to later settlers, the dye has been of useful value.

            The bark and sap were also often used as a cathartic.  The Cherokee made pills of the bark to treat toothaches (Moerman).  The Iroquis also had used the butternut for many different things, including the nut oil to condition hair, an infusion of the bark to induce pregnancies, and applied the bark to wounds (Moerman).  The nut oil was also mixed with bear grease to ward off mosquitos (Moerman).

            The wood of the butternut was and continues to be used for lumber and building materials.



Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: a Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. New York: Dover Publications, 1989. Print.

"Juglans Cinerea - Plants For A Future Database Report." Plants For A Future. Web. 16 Apr. 2010. <>.

"Juglans Cinerea L." The Complete Forests, Trees and Forestry Home Page. Web. 16 Apr. 2010. <>.

Moerman, Daniel. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber, 1998.

Sargent, Charles Sprague. The Woods of the United States. New York: D. Appleton and, 1885. Google Books. Web.

Snow, Charles H. The Principal Species of Wood Their Characteristic Properties. New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1903. Google Books. Web.