It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the chestnut’s demise. It once covered fully 25 percent of forested land from Maine to Alabama.
My neighborhood trees have started dropping their green nuts, reminding me of all the nut trees I wish I’d planted over the years. I’ve grown apples, peaches and cherries, but the nuts I’ve harvested have all been wild or bummed from friends. It’s one of the sad ironies of a gardener’s life that by the time one matures enough to appreciate the wonder of nut trees, it may be too late to see much benefit from planting such late-maturing flora. What’s more, most of us don’t settle in one place for a lifetime or entertain much hope that our kids will want to continue to hoe our rows, meaning that the fruits of nut husbandry will ultimately go to strangers.
During 20 years in Broad River Township (that’s down toward Bat Cave, for you newcomers), I frequently hiked past American chestnut (Castanea dentata) stumps 6 to 8 feet in diameter. Those magnificent trees had succumbed to the chestnut blight that swept through American forests, starting in New York in 1904, after being inadvertently imported with Japanese chestnut trees in the late 1800s.
What was once the climax tree for most Eastern deciduous forests was virtually obliterated, though it still survives here and there as a scrubby shrub, because the fungal disease doesn’t enter the root collar at the base of the tree. New growth struggles upward but repeatedly succumbs to the blight until other trees finally overshadow the stump and there isn’t enough sunlight to keep the pathetic vestige alive.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the chestnut’s demise. It once covered fully 25 percent of the forested land from Maine to Alabama and was the most economically important tree in the entire region. With its naturally rot-resistant wood (the reason those huge stumps still remain today) and delicious nuts, the tree was prized by Native American tribes and was an incomparable boon to European invaders. The trees themselves were huge — up to 90 feet tall, towering over the oaks, hickories and tulip poplars that stand as today’s forest giants. One tree near Waynesville boasted a trunk 17 feet in diameter.
Fortunately a few blight-resistant trees survived and, in recent years, The American Chestnut Foundation and the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation have initiated reseeding and selective-breeding programs intended to restore the species.
Blight resistance turned out to be a heritable trait, but so far it has emerged in only about 10 percent of the trees grown using seeds from ones with proven resistance. This has greatly complicated the goal of reforestation. For every 10 trees planted, nine eventually succumb, though they may last several years. The ACF requires growers to provide pasture land and full-time caretaking for its trees, which are planted in locations the group deems suitable. The Cooperators’ Foundation takes a more laissez-faire approach, providing 15 seeds to landowners willing to take the 10 percent gamble and hoping for one or two survivors at each site.
A smaller cousin of the chestnut, the chinquapin (Castanea pumila), is of some economic importance — its nuts are consumed locally and taste much like those of the extirpated giants, while its durable wood is used for telephone poles, fence posts and railroad ties. Chinquapins reach a height of 20 to 25 feet and spread from 6 to 20 feet wide. The tree’s a great candidate for suburban-garden nut production, as it will begin bearing fruit after several years rather than decades.
Other native nuts include the hickories (genus Carya) — all of which are either difficult to open or bitter or both — and black walnut (Juglans nigra), whose nuts taste just fine if you have the patience to bust them open or a couple of thousand dollars to invest in a mechanical huller. There’s a market for black walnuts: Commonly used in ice cream, they currently fetch about 7 cents per pound. The wood is highly prized, and the heartwood exhibits a deep brown color favored by furniture makers and woodcarvers.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea), a member of the walnut family, is a much better candidate for a food crop. True to their name, the nuts are sweet and oily and much easier to pry open than their gnarly walnut kin. The wood finds a ready market as well.
The American hazelnut (Corylus americana, aka the American filbert) is a thicket-forming, spreading shrub 3 to 10 feet tall. The fruit matures in July and August. Easily available from nurseries, the hazelnut is fairly tolerant of varying temperature, moisture and soil conditions. As a bonus, the leaves are colorful in autumn: orange to brick-red or purple-red with combinations of orange, yellow and green, making the tree a lovely landscape addition on top of its nutritional yield.
Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are a horticultural variant of the hickory, and some Northern or short-season varieties may do well in certain WNC locations where peaches thrive. Trees may grow to 100 feet tall and bear in alternate years after a decade of growth.
Among the imported nut trees available for silvicultural wannabes, the best may be the heartnut (Juglans sieboldiana), a Japanese ornamental walnut. A medium-sized tree, topping out at 40 to 60 feet, the heartnut bears the sweetest fruit in the walnut family. The more commonly sold Persian walnut (Juglans regia), which can be grown anywhere that peach blossoms don’t commonly suffer frost damage, yields the well-known commercial walnut. Often called the English walnut, the tree is available in naturally dwarfed varieties (35 feet tall) that bear fruit earlier than their wild cousins.
The Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollisima) is a smaller relative of the American chestnut, reaching only 30 to 40 feet in height. It begins to bear after just four years and is reliably blight-resistant.
Finally, the almond (Prunus dulcis) might be worth a try if your microclimate supports peaches. Dwarf varieties grow to only 10 feet tall and begin to bear in just a few years. Because of disease problems, almonds are often grafted to peach rootstocks.
As I contemplate my year-old garden and my 55-year-old self, I believe I’ll take a stab at the short term and plant a hazelnut this fall. With a (relatively) fast-growing, frost-resistant ornamental, I don’t think I can go too far wrong.
The Carolinas Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation can be reached via its Web site: http://carolinas-tacf.org. The American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation can be contacted at 2667 Forest Service Road 708, Newport, VA 24128, or via its Web site: www.accf-online.org.