Chestnuts and Chestnut Trees

Even though I am a septuagenarian, I am too young to remember the days when American Chestnut trees were a very common hardwood tree in the forests of the eastern United States. The “chestnut blight,” a fungus-infestation, wiped out nearly every one of the estimated 4 billion (billion!) chestnut trees in the first 4 decades of the 20th century.

Most of us are somewhat familiar with Horse Chestnut (Buckeye) trees, but they are quite different. The nut of Horse Chestnuts is not edible, while chestnuts are known for “roasting over an open fire.” I don’t think I ever saw chestnuts growing on a tree until I came to know them in Eliza Howell Park.

This is what the developing nuts look like at the end of July.

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The nuts are developing now. Most are ripe and fall to the ground in September. The outside shell, often called a burr, has many very sharp spines (not to be grabbed with the bare hand), though the spines are still soft in July. When they fall to the ground, the burrs usually open on their own, revealing the brown hulls of the nuts inside. In the Eliza Howell trees, each bur normally has three nuts.

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These are true chestnuts, but I do not want to mislead. They are not surviving native American Chestnuts. The two clumps of chestnut trees found inside the road loop were probably planted here some 30 or more years ago, I am guessing. This picture shows two (in a clump of three) close to the walking path.

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The fact that these trees have several trunks, not just a single one, suggests that they are an oriental chestnut species, originally from either Japan or China.

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The season is relatively short. Blossoms appear in June, with separate male and female flowers, both of which can be seen in the picture.

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In October, the fruiting season is over, with the last nuts falling as the leaves begin to turn.

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There are on-going efforts to develop American Chestnuts that are resistant to the blight. These efforts may make it possible for us to see American Chestnuts in parks and forests in the future. Meanwhile, these imported chestnuts provide the opportunity to get to know something about what chestnuts are and how they fruit.

Visitors to Eliza Howell Park can find them right along the walking path within the road loop.

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