Native to the eastern United States and southeast Canada. It is a deciduous tree growing to 20 m tall, and 40 to -80 cm stem diameter, with light gray bark. The leaves are pinnate, 40 to 70 cm long, with 11 to 17 leaflets, each leaflet 5 to 10 cm long and 3 to 5 cm broad. The whole leaf is downy-pubescent, and a somewhat brighter, yellower green than many other tree leaves. The male flowers are inconspicuous yellow-green catkins produced in spring at the same time as the new leaves appear, and the female flowers have light pink stigma. The fruit is a nut, produced in bunches of 2 to 6 together; the nut is oblong-ovoid, 3 to 6 cm long and 2 to 4 cm broad, surrounded by a green husk before maturity in mid autumn. Butternut grows quickly, but is rather short-lived for a tree, rarely living longer than 75 years.
Butternut grows best on stream banks and on well-drained soils. Butternut is found most frequently in coves, on stream benches and terraces, on slopes, in the talus of rock ledges, and on other sites with good drainage.