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Juglans cinerea is often confused with:
Ailanthus altissima Leaves
Carya cordiformis Tree form (Monroe County, NY)-Early Fall
Juglans nigra Juglans nigra
Juglans regia Form
Native alternative(s) for Juglans cinerea:
Juglans nigra Juglans nigra
Plants that fill a similar niche:
Quercus nigra Quercus nigra
Ulmus alata Ulmus alata
Ulmus americana Full Form

Juglans cinerea

Previously known as:

  • Juglans cathartica
  • Juglans oblonga
  • Nux cinerea
  • Wallia cinerea
Phonetic Spelling
JU-glanz sin-ER-ee-a

Butternut is small to a medium-sized shade tree in the Juglandaceae or walnut family that usually lives for 75 years. It grows to a height of 40 to 60 feet and is equally as wide. It has an open, rounded, spreading crown. The trunk is short, forked, or crooked, and the branches are stout. The leaves are dark green, pinnately-compound measuring 10-20 inches long, and have 11 to 19 leaflets. The leaflets are 2 to 5 inches long and oblong to lanceolate. The edible fruits are tan and oval. The nut's shells can be hard to crack, but the nuts are sweet and oily and prized by humans and wildlife. 

Butternut is native to Eastern Canada and the Central and Eastern United States. This tree is usually found in moist bottomlands, lowland forests, swamps, river banks, and some drier limestone soils. It has been ravaged by the butternut canker, and native stands have been destroyed. The tree has been placed on the endangered species list in some parts of the United States and has been all but eliminated in some southern states, 

The genus name, Juglans, is derived from two Latin words. Jovis means Jupiter, and glans means an acorn or nut. The specific epithet, cinerea, is translated as gray and refers to the bark of the tree.

 Plant this tree in moist, well-drained soil in the full sun. It grows best along streambanks, on slopes, and on rock ledges. It does not tolerate shade or competition.  Established trees tolerate drought and browsing by rabbits. As with black walnut, butternuts produce juglones which are toxic to other plants. The effect usually extends out to the drip line.

Butternut and the Black Walnut trees resemble each other. The may difference is the Black Walnut's fruits will stain your hands, and the stem and crushed leaves have a strong odor. 

Some recommend that it is best not to plant the Butternut because of its susceptibility to butternut canker. It is generally not used as an ornamental tree, but it is planted for its fruits.

Seasons Of Interest:

Bark:  Winter   Bloom: Spring to Early Summer      Foliage:  Spring, Summer, and Fall     Fruits:  Fall

Quick ID Hints:

  • deciduous, medium to large tree, with open, rounded, spreading crown, growing up to 40 to 60 feet tall
  • the trunk is short, forked, or crooked
  • chambered pith
  • leaves alternate, crowded at tips, pinnately compound with 11 to 17 leaflets, leaflets oblong to lanceolate, terminal leaflet present
  • dense pad of hairs above the leaf scar
  • male flowers are yellowish-green catkins, and female flowers are short spikes--bloom from April to June
  • fruit is a sweet nut with a hard shell that is encased in a greenish outer husk with 2 to 4 longitudinal ridges
  • older bark gray to grayish-brown with scattered lenticels, develops narrow, flat ridges and shallow furrows

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems:  The tree is endangered in its native range due to butternut canker disease and overharvesting. The canker has devastated the tree and there is no cure. It may also suffer from blight. Potential insects include wood borers, nut weevils, lace bugs, husk flies, bark beetles, and butternut curculio. The common grackle has been known to destroy immature fruit, and they are classified as pests. This tree is also susceptible to fire and storm damage.

The roots of the Butternut release a chemical known as juglone. This chemical can stunt the growth or kill plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, lilacs, peonies, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The toxic zone extends 60 to 80 feet from the trunk of the tree. The husks of the Butternut also secrete a strong dye that stains clothing and skin.

VIDEO created by Grant L. Thompson for “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines for Landscaping” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University.

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Cultivars / Varieties:
#deciduous#shade tree#full sun tolerant#drought tolerant#interesting bark#native tree#moth caterpillar host#spring flowers#fall interest#rabbit resistant#edible nuts#showy fruits#nuts#endangered#NC native#native fruit tree#catkins#edible fruits#rounded#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#larval host plant#allelopathic#messy fruits#wet soils tolerant#dry soils tolerant#hickory horndevil moth#medium size tree#landscape plant sleuths course#wildlife friendly
Cultivars / Varieties:
#deciduous#shade tree#full sun tolerant#drought tolerant#interesting bark#native tree#moth caterpillar host#spring flowers#fall interest#rabbit resistant#edible nuts#showy fruits#nuts#endangered#NC native#native fruit tree#catkins#edible fruits#rounded#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#larval host plant#allelopathic#messy fruits#wet soils tolerant#dry soils tolerant#hickory horndevil moth#medium size tree#landscape plant sleuths course#wildlife friendly
  • Attributes:
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    The wood is used to make furniture, cabinetry, instrument cases, interior woodwork, hand-carved wall panels, trim, church decoration, and altars. The nut is popularly used in New England for making maple-butternut candy. Early settlers used fruit husks and inner bark to make orange or yellow dye and root bark for a laxative. The outer bark was used to make teas to treat dysentery and toothaches. Native Americans used the nuts for food and boiled the tree sap for syrup. They also used nuts to make oil for anointing.
    Life Cycle:
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Eastern Canada to North Central and Eastern United States
    Native: Canada--New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec; United States--AL, AR, CT, DE, GA, IL, IN, IA, KY, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, VT, VA, WV, and WI. Introduced: Denmark, North Caucasus, Poland, Romania, Tadzhikistan, and Transcaucasus.
    Fire Risk Rating:
    high flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Provides food for squirrels and other rodents, birds and mammals. This plant supports Hickory Horndevil (Citheronia regalis) larvae which have one brood and appear from May to mid-September. Adult Hickory Horndevil moths do not feed. Larval host plant for the Luna moth.
    Play Value:
    Edible fruit
    Wildlife Food Source
    Nuts are edible and sought after by food enthusiasts. The nuts are sweet, oily, and mild flavored. They can become rancid quickly.
    Height: 40 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 40 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Growth Rate:
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Soil Texture:
    High Organic Matter
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Available Space To Plant:
    24-60 feet
    NC Region:
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fruit Type:
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    1-3 inches
    Fruit Description:
    The fruit is a nut that is encased in an outer husk that is green with 2 to 4 longitudinal ridges and covered with short, sticky hairs. The fruits are oblong to an ovoid pointed nut that measures 1.5 to 2.2 inches long. They usually mature from September to October. The nuts may be single or in clusters of 2 to 5 nuts at the branch tips. The seed is sweet, oily, and edible.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Flower Size:
    3-6 inches
    Flower Description:
    Male flowers are yellow-green in 2.5 to 5.5-inch-long slender catkins with up to 15 stamens. Female flowers are inconspicuous and are short terminal spikes that appear at the end of branches, measuring 1.5 to 2.5 inches long. The spikes have up to 7 flowers. The green ovary has sticky hairs with a red stigma. Bloom time is from April to June.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Leaf Color:
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Leaf Type:
    Compound (Pinnately , Bipinnately, Palmately)
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Leaf Shape:
    Leaf Margin:
    Hairs Present:
    Leaf Length:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are alternate and crowded at the branch tips and appear whorled. The dark green odd-pinnately compound leaves are 10-20 inches long with 11 to 19 leaflets including a terminal leaflet. The leaflets are 2 to 5 inches long and 0.75 to 2.25 inches wide. They have serrated margins and fine hairs on both the upper and lower surfaces. The undersides are paler and glandular. The leaflets are oblong to lanceolate. The petiole and rachis are glandular and have sticky hairs. The fall leaf color is yellow
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Light Brown
    Light Gray
    Bark Plate Shape:
    Bark Description:
    The bark is smooth, gray to grayish-brown with scattered pale lenticels. It develops narrow, flat-topped shiny ridges and broad, shallow furrows as the tree ages. The ridges are white and develop diamond-shaped patterns. The furrows are dark gray to black.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    Stem Buds:
    Stem Bud Terminal:
    Cluster of terminal buds
    Stem Leaf Scar Shape:
    Heart or shield shaped
    Pith (Split Longitudinally):
    Stem Surface:
    Hairy (pubescent)
    Stem Description:
    The new stems are green to olive brown and have glandular and non-glandular hairs. They become smooth with age. The buds are light brown, dense, and downy. The terminal bud is 0.5 to 1 inch long and appears in clusters. The stem tastes bitter. The branch pith is chocolate brown and chambered. The leaf scar is large, 3-lobed, and downy triangle. A downy pad is present above the leaf scar.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Landscape Theme:
    Edible Garden
    Native Garden
    Nighttime Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Design Feature:
    Shade Tree
    Small Mammals
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Dry Soil
    Wet Soil