COLUMBIA, Mo. – A little more than a century ago, native chestnut trees dominated the hardwood forests of eastern North America and provided townsfolk and settlers alike with a ready source of food, timber and other valuable commodities.
“They used the bark to tan leather, and the wood provided strong, rot-resistant timber,” said Michael Gold, University of Missouri professor of forestry.
“Chestnuts were an important food source in colonial times.”
“When chestnuts are milled, it’s similar to corn meal, only a little sweeter,” said Ken Hunt, research associate at the Missouri Center for Agroforestry.
“They even used to fatten their hogs on free-range chestnuts.”
Blight hits. Sometime in the late 1800s, a blight accidentally imported from Asia took hold of the American chestnut, and “it was the same scenario as the Dutch elm blight,” Hunt said. “It spread very rapidly.”
By 1950, the blight had wiped out the chestnut forests of the United States, and chestnuts were no longer common fare on American tables.
“About the only thing left today is the line of the song,” Gold said.
Restoration. Research is under way to restore the American chestnut, and Gold is confident that in time, blight-resistant trees will once again be found in the eastern forests.
But the stately spreading chestnut trees of the Longfellow poem might not be seen for many generations.
Hunt and Gold, however, believe there could be a bright future in chestnuts for Midwestern growers.
At the Missouri University Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin, they are experimenting with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut cultivars for nut-cropping – with promising results.
“Our focus is to grow chestnuts as an orchard crop,” Gold said.
“We feel that under good management, chestnut trees can produce at least a ton per acre per year. And they will produce heavily for at least two decades, and probably a lot longer.”
Began as hobby. Hunt started growing nut trees almost 20 years ago “as a hobby,” he said. He had pecan and Eastern black walnut trees, both native to Missouri, as well as chestnuts.
“I realized the chestnuts do really well here.”
He discovered that the chestnut trees will bear nuts in as little as five to seven years, while pecans cannot be harvested until the tree is at least 10 years old.
Hunt’s pecan crop was also plagued by what he calls “critter problems,” unlike his chestnuts.
“Since they’re in a spiny burr, the birds and squirrels usually leave them alone.”
Hunt soon found the Chinese cultivars did better in Missouri than the European chestnut cultivars favored by many nut croppers on the west coast.
“The Chinese cultivars are more or less completely resistant to the blight,” he said. “And China has a climate similar to the Midwest, so they can tolerate our cold winters and hot summers.”
Chinese help. Seven years ago, Hunt started growing grafted chestnuts at HARC, and today there are more than 50 Chinese chestnut cultivars.
“For the last three years, I’ve been getting a harvest,” he said.
“It’s not that big, but it’s enough to give us information about the cultivars.”
He and Gold selected the three cultivars that showed the most promise and established experimental orchards at the center a year ago, with the aim of testing the trees’ response to different pruning and fertilization regimens.
Even if the trees thrive and produce abundant nuts, that’s only the first step in making chestnuts into a profitable crop, Gold said.
“We have to create a market demand. People around here just don’t know about them.”
The existing U.S. markets for chestnuts are made up of ethnic Asians and southern Europeans – people from areas where the chestnut has never lost favor as a foodstuff.
“Historically, in Europe it was pauper food,” Hunt said.
“You’ve heard of porridge? Well, porridge was basically chestnut meal. It was the major source of carbohydrates in the European diet until wheat came along.”
Healthy benefits. In these health-conscious times, chestnuts are beginning to come back, Gold said.
“Nutritionally, it’s more like a grain than a nut. Some people call it ‘The un-nut.'”
The chestnut has by far the lowest fat content of any cultivated nut, and its subtle flavor and soft texture make it an ideal ingredient in many recipes.
“You can candy it, and it’s almost like a sweet potato,” Hunt said. “You can add it to pancakes and waffles, or you can go the dessert route.”
Gold has saved “the only copy I ever bought” of Martha Stewart Living magazine, an issue with a cover blurb that reads: “Chestnuts - From Stuffing to Strudel.”
There is also a market for honey from the chestnut tree blossom, he said.
“That honey sells for a premium price,” Gold said. He and Hunt hope to see beehives established near the stand at the research center this spring.
“It’s considered gourmet and health food now,” Hunt said. “It’s definitely not porridge.”
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