How Minnesota Fk’d Up Butternuts

Butternut canker and legality

Another reason you might not see butternuts is because of the disease that affects them. Butternut canker, a sort of fungus that attacks the trees, is bad news, similar to the blight that hit American chestnut trees as far as impact–not a good thing if you’re a butternut tree. Some trees I’ve picked from seemed to have a good resistance though, and if you look closely you can see the scars on the trunk to prove it. Unfortunately, the losses in Minnesota are bad enough that the tree has been listed as “of special concern” since 1996, and is now considered endangered, and, in a nutshell, that’s why it’s illegal.

I couldn’t believe that a food plant so reasonably well known in the wild food community could be illegal myself, so I called the Minnesota DNR and, after a number of calls over the span of a few months, I finally got the answer. Essentially, listing it as an endangered species invokes the full legal the full legal protocol making it completely illegal to harvest or possess the nuts. Don’t gather the nuts, pick them up, move them, eat them, plant them, or, drive around with some in your car, unless they’re in a secret compartment. That’s right, even if you wanted to plant the trees, be the Johnny Appleseed of butternuts, you could technically be facing jailtime, a felony and all the trimmings that go with it, including the loss of your voting rights.

When traveling with butternuts across state lines into Minnesota, try to hide them in a place the Police won’t look. Here I’m using the old school “He’s got nuts” method.

The law here is obviously overkill, but I can understand the intent. Plant gets blight disease that slowly destroys it? Put it on the endangered list–easy as, pecan pie, right? It seems to me like a knee jerk reaction that had unintended consequences. At least to me, there’s a stark contrast to someone possessing the edible fruit of a tree, one that’s harvested in quantity and legal in the surrounding states, to possessing something like a boreal owl, destroying the den of a timber rattlesnake, eating bald eagle egg omelets, or gathering other vascular plants that are endangered for some purpose, as in the case of the ginseng black market.

Not even the state can possess the nuts for propagation

It gets better though, and by better I mean bad. The law is fascinatingly byzantine in the case of butternuts, and I’m quoting the DNR here: “not even the State Nursery can possess the nuts for purposes of propagation”. So, you can’t plant butternuts, I can’t plant butternuts, and neither can the state. So, my question is, how the hell are we supposed to help this tree if no one can touch it? Is there nutting we can do?

Fresh butternuts (left) Dried butternuts (right).

Hammons Black Walnuts

David Shields On Black Walnut Candy

David ShieldsOn Black Walnut Candy

Of all the nuts in the antioxidant rich Juglans family, the black walnut has the most distinctive flavor—sweet, with a licorice note, a mild bitterness, and a mellow resonance as the oils linger in the mouth.

The chemistry of the nut is complex, high in y-Tocopherols, and highest in poly-unsaturated fatty acids among nuts, with a rich array of Phenolics and Flavanoids. Food scientists have long been aware of the beneficial effects of black walnut on human health.

Because of the notorious difficulty of removing the nut meats from the shell, the commercial culinary exploitation of the nut has been modest compared to its relatives the hickory, and the walnut.

Currently the Hammons Company of Missouri is the major supplier of processed nut meats, but home foragers have kept alive a rich tradition of home baked black walnut confections and candies.


Because of its distinctive flavor, the black walnut was subject to extensive experimentation as a candy ingredient–an array of fudges, taffies, chews, and brittles came into being. One of the classic creations was a candy in which chopped meats were coated with molten maple sugar, water and butter.

A southern version of the candy used the following formula:

Three cups of white sugar; 1/c cup of vinegar; 1 tablespoon of dark molasses, 1 tablespoon of butter. This was cooked until the water test turned the hot mixture brittle. Take off fire, stir in 2 cups of black walnuts that have been pounded fine. Stir mixture until it thickens. Pour rapidly in a buttered dish and cut into squares. The Pullman News (December 1928), 270

This basic formula could be tarted up by adding almond or orange extract and by upping the molasses component from 1 to 3 tablespoons.

Among the stranger black walnut confections was Sauer Kraut Candy: which used equal parts black walnut meats and shredded coconut as the material for a brown sugar, goldens syrup, milk and butter matrix. It was cut into long strips. I’ve never tasted this or seen this made.

Black walnut brittle was the simplest candy to make. You poured a salted simply syrup onto chopped nuts onto a cold candy slab and set it set.

There was a moment in the early 20th century when taffy chews were made with black walnuts, but the near equal mix of sugar, corn syrup, an molasses in the candy body made this rather noxiously sweet.

Coating black walnuts in chocolate was the path of late 20th century confectionery and is probably the most common form of black walnut candy now commercially available. I think the darker the chocolate, the more interesting the experience.

And as black walnut brittle