(This 800th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 30, 2006.)
Most of us are aware of the sad demise of our American chestnut trees. Until 1900 they were a major component of Eastern forests. It has been said that a squirrel could travel in them from the Canadian border to central Alabama without having to touch the ground. They were wonderful trees, their wood decay resistant and their nuts tasty. You can still find farm fences made of this wood and farmers fattened not only their livestock but their families with the nuts.
Photo by Buffalo News photographer Dennis Enser
Unfortunately, today mature American chestnuts are rare. You can still find small trees but soon the vicious fungus blight mars them with cankers and they die back. The American Chestnut Society has been working for years trying to develop a resistant tree but success seems always just around the corner.
All living things have their enemies and populations are controlled by them. For example, within a year or two we would be overrun with mice if they didn't have a legion of predators. Despite our civilization even humans are not enemy free. We rarely face wild animals; instead our predators are mostly a wide range of microbes and viruses but they also include ourselves for we too often inflict psychopathic violence on each other.
Although we may know about the chestnut blight, few of us know that another forest tree is in still worse danger. The butternut or white walnut, formerly common from the Midwest through New England, has been decimated by a canker that is more lethal than the one that attacks chestnuts.
The fungus that is killing our butternuts has a name almost as bad as its effect: Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum. The Forest Service tells us that it "initially infects trees through buds, leaf scars, and possibly insect wounds and other openings in the bark, rapidly killing small branches. Spores produced on branches are carried down the stem by rain, resulting in multiple stem cankers that eventually girdle and kill infected trees." Whereas chestnut blight allows the infected tree to re-sprout, the butternut canker kills its host completely.
Butternut canker was first identified in Wisconsin in 1967 and already it has killed 80% of this species in most states. Bill Hudson, newly appointed Executive Director of the Buffalo Audubon Society, tells me that it is uncommon to find one these days that is not diseased or dead. He watches for them but hasn't seen an unaffected butternut for several years.
Too bad, because the butternut's light wood is easily worked and polished for cabinets, furniture and instrument cases. The nuts are highly nutritious and tasty, many believe better than walnuts. Their sap can also be used to produce syrup. At least as important, butternuts were also a major component of mast, the tree fruits that feed wild mammals and birds. I recall once seeing the marks made by a bear that had climbed a butternut tree to reap its nuts.
The colonial leader Roger Williams reported Indians using the oil to anoint their heads and his fellow colonists using the bark to make "an excellent Beere both for taste, strength, and color." And during our Civil War backwoods Southern regiments wore homespun clothing colored with brownish yellow dye made from this tree's husks and twigs. Their uniforms earned the soldiers the name butternuts.
Given this tree's rarity, it was much to my surprise to receive a call from a woman who has several butternuts in her yard. Fifty years ago she and her husband received permission from the owners of The Butternut Inn in Stowe, Vermont to pick up nuts from their lawn when they were visiting. They brought the nuts home and planted them around their garage. Now they have three thriving trees. She called me because this year for the first time one of their trees is bearing fruit.
Intrigued, I visited their Kenmore yard filled with many other nut trees as well. Beautiful walnuts provided rich shade so the butternuts were only about twenty feet tall. Thankfully all appeared quite healthy. And indeed we found many clusters of green nut pods gathered in groups of three.
What is probably protecting these trees from this virulent fungus is their isolation. I hope they last.-- Gerry Rising