The American chestnut tree is a majestic, sprawling, large tree that was a mainstay of eastern U.S. forests before blight wiped it out.
Chestnut burrs (fruits) contain the chestnut seeds or nuts that we love to eat.
Chestnut blight is a fungus from Asia that spread throughout the eastern U.S. one hundred years ago, killing most wild chestnut trees in its wake.
American chestnuts are smaller-sized than Asian and European species, but many consider them the best eating.
Growing nut trees is a long term proposition. They take up lots of space, but have so many uses, not the least of which is yielding edible nuts. There's no more rewarding a nut to grow than the chestnut. Many have heard the story of the American chestnut. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the queen of the eastern forest. This majestic tree grew from Maine to Georgia and across the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and Great Lakes. In the southern part of its range the American chestnuts could grow 100 feet tall. Not only was it a majestic tree in the forest and landscape, it also had many economic uses. The rot resistant wood was highly prized for building, fencing, and furniture and musical instrument making. The nuts were collected and sold and were also a great source of food for wildlife. In its heyday in the late 1800's this tree dominated the native forest.
Unfortunately, in the early 1900's a blight disease was inadvertently imported from China on some Chinese chestnuts. The blight quickly spread from New York City into New England and the Southeast. By the 1940's the great chestnut forests of the east were mostly gone. While saplings and young trees still grow in the forest today, they usually succumb to blight before they grow large enough to flower and bear fruit.
This chestnut story isn't finished though. Other species of chestnuts, such as Chinese chestnuts, are blight resistant and can be grown across the country. Plus, many researchers have been breeding the resistant Chinese chestnuts with American chestnuts to get blight resistant trees that are closer to the original American chestnut that graced our forests 100 years ago. So think about growing a chestnut trees or two in your yard. Even if you don't have a large yard, there are selections that grow to shrub-like proportions.
There are a lot of reasons to grow a chestnut. Unlike many other large tree species, chestnuts are moderate to fast growers and quickly become an important landscape feature in your yard, increasing your home’s value and helping to reduce global warming by sequestering excess carbon in the atmosphere.
Although it may take eight years or more to start getting nuts, depending on the species, they taste great when they come. Chestnuts are lower in fat than other tree nuts, but are high in vitamins B and C, minerals, and phytonutrients. The meat is starchy, like a sweet potato, but has high quality proteins. Plus, they are a lot easier to eat than other tree nuts. The thin shells open easily when roasted to reveal the fleshy meat inside. This time of year you'll see bushels of chestnuts in markets for Thanksgiving and the holidays. These mostly come from other chestnut species grown in Europe. But why spend your money on these, when you can grow your own?
The first thing to remember about growing chestnuts is that most will eventually become very large trees. Choose your site wisely. Make sure it's far enough away from houses, outbuildings, power lines, and underground utilities.
The next step is to select a variety that is blight resistant and adapted to your area. While research continues toward developing a pure American chestnut with blight resistance, there are other options available now for the home gardener. Here are a few choices.
Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) – Although some consider these nuts inferior in quality to those of the American chestnut, the tree is blight resistant and will grow to 40 feet tall producing good tasting nuts. Chinese chestnuts are hardy in USDA zone 4 and widely adapted across the country.
Dunstan – This cross between an American and Chinese chestnut has been grow for over 20 years without any reports of blight. Many trees are now more than 50 feet tall and are producing an abundance of tasty nuts. It's hardy to USDA zone 4.
Colossal – Another grafted Chinese and American cross, this chestnut grows up to 70 feet tall and is especially well adapted to growing out West. Its parent is another cross called 'Nevada' that gets its name from Nevada City, California. It's hardy to USDA zone 5.
Chinquapin – This small, shrub-like tree is native to the Southeast. It produces one nut per burr, but starts producing only four to five years after planting. It grows only 10 feet tall, is hardy to USDA zone 5, and makes a nice landscape plant.
European – European chestnuts (Castanea sativa) primarily are grown in the West, and the trees are not as cold hardy as the Chinese types. They produce 65 foot tall trees with delicious nuts, but can be susceptible to blight. That's why they have better success in the West where chestnut blight is not as prevalent..
Once you decide you have the space and penchant for growing chestnuts, here's how to get started. Your planting location should ideally be on sloping, well-drained soil in full sun. Chestnuts like a slightly acidic soil and don't tolerate heavy clay well.
Plant at least 2 different varieties for cross pollination. While direct planting chestnut seeds is less expensive and a way to grow many trees inexpensively, for a small landowner buying transplants is a smarter way to go. Space trees at least 25 feet apart. Dig a hole twice the width of the container or rootball, and plant at the same depth as the tree was growing in the container. Water well and mulch to keep grasses and weeds away. Protect the trees from browsing deer with tree guards or plastic tree shelters. Use tree wrap to protect the bark from gnawing mice and voles.
Keep the trees growing strong each year by applying a balanced fertilizer each spring and keeping the soil mulched and watered.