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Mission Impossible?

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Published on: Dec. 13, 2012

walnut, but is a lighter brown color. The wood carves like butter and glues together well.”

Hoss’s family has owned land along Missouri’s Black River in Iron County since the mid 1970s. There, a scattering of butternuts grew in the hills and along the river. Many were 15–20 inches in diameter.

“Some of the trees lasted until the 1990s,” Hoss says. “But on our 30 acres, we don’t have any butternut left, nor do we see any downriver on the neighbor’s property.”

Hoss’ story is identical to many other landowners and one that resounds with carvers who prefer to work with butternut wood. Unfortunately, they soon may not be able to obtain it.

The Ozark Chinquapin

The sweet nuts of the Ozark chinquapin compare to the pecan, but resemble acorns. Instead of a cap, they sport a spiny burr to protect the nuts from early harvest by squirrels and mice. This makes for easy tree identification.

Tino Burnett is a Cherokee tribe member who now resides in Eucha, Okla. When recalling his youth in the Ozarks, he remembers the chinquapin’s burrs as much as the nut’s sweet taste.

“I used to walk the woods with bare feet. My skin was tougher then,” Burnett says. “I’d step on those burrs and boy, did it hurt.”

Although Burnett remembers using rocks to crack the nut out of the burrs, he says it was worth the pursuit. “We’d walk miles to get to a chinquapin tree,” he says.

But the tree’s value goes far beyond just being used as a food source. Chinquapin trees are known for their attractive and rot-resistant lumber, whose uses ranged from fence posts and shingles to fine furniture, dulcimers, and violins. The trees provide food and shelter to wildlife, and Native Americans used the leaves for a cough medicine and the bark as an astringent.

Two Trees, One Tale

Where these two trees’ paths collide is in their demise. Both are succumbing to exotic diseases. Butternuts are dying throughout their range in North America due to a fungus, commonly called the butternut canker, which causes multiple branch and stem cankers that eventually girdle the infected trees, according to MDC Resource Forester Marty Calvert.

Calvert says sprouts that develop from an infected tree are also infected and usually die within a few years. “The canker has been detrimental to butternut trees for roughly 60 years, girdling the trees before

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