Growing fruit & nuts

Nut trees, good news/bad news

The good news is I found a really nice flush of oyster mushrooms. The bad news is they’re on a buartnut tree we planted nearly 30 years ago.

Oyster mushrooms on a nut tree

This tree was a seedling hybrid cross of a butternut with a heartnut (Juglans cinerea x J. ailantifolia), the idea being that the heartnut would contribute disease resistance and better nut characteristics – easier cracking and more abundance – to the butternut.

We have quite a few wild butternut trees all around us, but the nuts themselves are a rare find indeed. Same with hazel. The wild trees do bear nuts, I see them unripe on the trees. The thing is, there are all these professional nut gatherers (red squirrels) who have nothing better to do than snatch all the nuts the second they’re ripe and stash them away. A human doesn’t stand much of a chance at this wild harvest. And, if one should be so lucky as to find a couple of wild butternuts, well, let’s just say, they are a hard-won delicacy. The ratio of nut meat to shell (after you get the outer hull off) is about 1:4 in favor of the shell, and the shell does not open easily or cleanly. It’s hammer and pick work – a project for long winter nights around the wood stove.

So, the possibility of an improved butternut had great appeal to me. Inspired by reading Bill Mollison’s permaculture books in the 1970s, I made sure to plant and graft a few fruit and nut trees every year, no matter how tight money was. St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam NY was one of my major resources for planting material. It was founded in the 1920s by Fred Ashworth, who is probably the best known breeder of nut trees for cold climates. His work is being carried on by Bill Mackently, the present proprieter of St. Lawrence Nursery.

Whenever I think of people breeding nut trees (especially the old-fashioned way), I pause in a moment of deep respect for the fortitude involved in such an undertaking. In most cases it is a good ten years at least before one gets to literally harvest the fruit of one’s labor. In my mind, nut breeders are the epitome of patience.

The buartnut that out-grew its bark

And, not too far behind that are those of us who plant nut trees.

I planted a few of St. Lawrence’s Pierce selection of buartnut seedlings. Looking back, I wish I had been able to get grafted trees, but grafted nut trees hardy enough for us were just about impossible to find at that time. (Insert cheap advice – planting any seedling fruit or nut tree is a big gamble, and you don’t get too many chances to roll the dice again if you have a failure. If you’re planting nut trees, get grafted trees if at all possible.)

Of the first plantings, two seedlings tended to die back to the ground each year, whether from winter-kill or the disease that is afflicting the local wild butternuts, or something else, I don’t know. (I do know it wasn’t an issue of the quality of the nursery stock: when first planted they grew very well.)

One of these trees is still doing this annual die-back after 30 years, and out of curiousity, I’ve left it alone. However, one tree from the first planting of buartnuts grew like it was on steroids – a great example of hybrid vigor. The only problem was, it seemed to outgrow its own bark, causing splitting at intervals all the way around and up and down the trunk and branches. The splits were vectors for rot, and for many years the tree would lose branches and vigorously replace them. It had several good sized crops of nuts, borne at a relatively early age for nut trees. They were pretty similar to our butternuts, VERY hard work to crack with not much reward – and likely to vanish if you blink.

New buartnut, old buartnut

New buartnut, foreground; old buartnut background.

Here’s another Pierce buartnut seedling planted about 15 years or so after the first buartnut plantings. This one seems to be a much more well adjusted individual – good vigor, but not out of balance with growing hardy, solid wood and bark. It just started bearing 2 years ago, so it’s too early to evaluate it for the abundance of nuts. For nut quality, they’re a bit better than the nuts from the now dead tree, maybe 3:1 shell to meat.

nuts from the new tree

Nuts from the new tree.

Just about the same time the new tree had its first nuts, the old tree finally gave up the ghost. We haven’t gotten around to cutting it down, and now I’m glad about that.

A summer flush of oysters.

A summer flush of oyster mushrooms

The wet summer of 2009 brought out the first big flush of oyster mushrooms, and we had another this past November, which was a great treat. In the cold weather there was absolutely no insect damage. They were delicious.

Perhaps the buartnut tree on steroids made a lasting genetic contribution to our wild butternut population. I’ve been finding seedlings, scattered around our woods from squirrels’ forgotten underground caches, probably from the tree I planted, or maybe from the wild butternuts.

squirrel planted seedling

A butternut X seedling planted by squirrels amongst the tamaracks

Either way, there has likely been cross pollination here, and I’m hoping that some of the seedlings will have some resistance to the disease that is threatening to wipe out our wild butternuts. Another roll of the dice…

4 Responses to “Nut trees, good news/bad news”

  1. Mike says:

    I’m glad you wrote this post as we have been talking about finding more nut trees to attempt to grow. We read up on the butternut a bit last year but have not decided whether or not to give it a try and now I have a lot more information to digest. Right now we have hazelnuts that are just starting to produce and numerous walnut and chestnut saplings that have many, many years of growth ahead of them. Nice mushrooms.:)

  2. Ottawa Gardener says:

    Great post as always. I’m glad to hear that your improved butternut has given you a flush of food afterall. As for nut tree diseases – sigh. First the chestnut, then the butternut, I hear things about black walnut too. There are a lot butternuts planted around our property by the previous owners and lots of black walnuts, some of nut bearing age and some squirrel planted. I have fantasies of casting a giant net over them all or just pickling green black walnuts. I hear people do that. Then I can have some.

  3. Connor says:

    Any chance you have sources for grafted buartnut or scions?

  4. admin says:

    Hi Connor!
    Thanks for visiting The Extreme Gardener.
    St. Lawrence Nursery has grafted Buartnuts, the same variety we grew (Pierce). None of our trees have survived, though we did get a few years with some nuts. The hybrid vigor (which St. Lawrence mentions in the catalog description) makes for really fast growth, but in our experience, not good for tree longevity. Ours were planted in very rich soil with moderate moisture, maybe in poorer soil they wouldn’t outgrow their bark.

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