Ah, the blueberry fields of Maine. I've mentioned how I did seasonal work raking blueberries, and let me tell you, blueberries never taste as good as they do those first moments right off the bush. But I've never mentioned the butternut trees that lined two sides of the fields.
I must have gathered a hundred pounds of butternuts in small batches for the weeks I worked in the fields. The nut is shaped like a walnut, and much more segmented on the inside, but incredibly flavorful and buttery, making it worth the effort.
I haven't had a butternut since I left Maine. About five years ago, I did a search for butternuts and was dismayed by what I discovered. Butternuts, actually Black Walnuts, are being decimated by a fungus that has wiped out 90% of all butternut trees in the Midwest and Ontario. Forest researchers in Vermont monitored 1,269 butternuts; in 1993 92% were infected and 12% were dead. In 2000, 96% were infected and 41% were dead.
Most of us would never know if a particular species of tree disappeared over time. Elms and American chestnuts have just about disappeared; most children have never seen one. Probably most people in Massachusetts have never seen a butternut tree either, or tasted a butternut, and that's to our detriment.
Not everyone is willing to accept the loss of the butternut. The Burlington Free Press has an article about the search for resistant trees and research into grafting and treatment. Let's hope they succeed.
Painting: Terri L. Baugh Norman