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COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Butternut in Canada

First Nations Traditional Knowledge

Butternut (Akiehwa:ta in Mohawk) was an edible oil nut known and used by many First Nation peoples. This nut had to be harvested quickly, when it matured, because the oils in the nut would become rancid and inedible. As a result of this, Native people planted this tree anywhere that their villages were established. Like the Black Walnut, this species was brought north with the movement of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse, popularly known as the Iroquois).

The distribution of butternut was widespread over southern Ontario, southern Quebec and central Maritimes but occurred in dense clusters. Butternut’s establishment in the Maritimes probably occurred within the last 600 years as the butternut was distributed among the different nations. Since the butternut is still traded among Native peoples, isolated trees can be found outside of the main range.

The butternut trees tend to become “grandfather” trees at 30-50 years. At this age, trees are used to propagate new trees within the area. Once the grandfathers are taken, it is hard to ensure that replacement stock is suitable for the area.

Butternut has been steadily declining since contact with Europeans in Canada and the United States. Many of the butternut stands were used for furniture but also were cleared from the best spots for villages. These sites in many cases were old Native village sites now occupied by Canadian cities and towns. Farming and other land uses also threaten the remaining stands of butternut.  Currently butternut canker has been seen on most trees within the main range. Many Native peoples are searching for canker resistant butternuts to establish new butternut clusters and for future seed sources.

The Native peoples of North America had many medicinal and cultural uses for the butternut (Chandler et al., 1979; Gilmore, 1933; Hamel and Chiltoskey, 1975; Herrick, 1977; Smith, 1928; Smith, 1923; Smith, 1933). For further details see the website.