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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Researchers hope to rescue the dying butternut tree by identifying specimens that are naturally resistant to a fungus blamed for killing the tree.

Dr. Scott Schlarbaum of the University of Tennessee forestry department said the fungus is responsible for wiping out 80 percent of the butternut trees in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Schlarbaum heads a rescue team that includes the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the National Biological Service.

The butternut began disappearing in the 1950s, succumbing to a fungus probably introduced with the Asian walnut tree, Schlarbaum said.

Some butternut survivors may have escaped exposure to the fungus but others appear to be naturally resistant. The U.S. Forest Service will confirm the trees’resistance by exposing healthy samples to the disease, Schlarbaum said.

“We think we have found some naturally resistant trees in the wild,” said Schlarbaum. “I’m encouraged. I think we will be able to produce naturally resistant trees.”

Prized by pioneers who ate the nuts and used the wood to craft furniture, the butternut also is remembered as a dye source for coloring the often homemade uniforms of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Dot Kelly, a member of the Civil War Roundtable here, said she was aware of the butternut’s Civil War role, but did not realize the tree was threatened.

“Now that I think about it,” said Kelly, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a butternut.”

Kelly said soldiers dressed in light-brown or butternut-colored uniforms began showing up in Confederate ranks after Union blockades shutoff virtually all commerce to the southern states.

“The Confederate soldier’s uniform was often made at home using materials they had at hand,” Kelly said. “For coloring, they used butternut or walnut — whatever was available.”

The butternut grows in the upper South and as far north as the Great Lakes. It is related to the black walnut, pecan and hickory.

Contact: Dr. Scott Schlarbaum (423-974-7993)