Old Chestnuts and New Beginnings
Nowadays “old chestnut” means “an old joke or story.” But there was nothing funny about what happened to the original old chestnuts—massive trees which sometimes could reach 100 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter.
In those days, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was a much-loved story itself, making up as much as one quarter of some eastern forests. Settlers built their cabins with the tree’s rot resistant logs, and a “spreading” specimen shaded the smithy in Longfellow’s famous poem, probably symbolizing the strength of the farrier.
Like that “mighty man,” the chestnut was a benevolent giant, and provided much of the lumber needed to build a new country. Its nuts fed wildlife, roasted in fireplaces during the Christmas season, and flavored holiday stuffing. As old photos proved, 19th century Americans loved posing with the trees that both dwarfed them and seemed so unshakably rooted in their culture.
Then disaster struck with the importation of Oriental chestnuts in the early 1900s. Those newcomers brought with them a blight to which they were resistant themselves but virtually wiped out the native species. As the American Chestnut Foundation puts it: “The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then disappeared within 40.”
Old-timers still speak wistfully of the few native chestnut trees remaining when they were children and of how much they and the local wildlife loved them. Other types of wild nuts can be hard for both young humans and squirrels to break open, offer just small kernels as rewards, and bear good crops only intermittently. The chestnut was an easier nut to crack, almost all kernel, and a much more reliable producer.
Better Growing Chestnut Tree Varieties
Fortunately, the tree didn’t completely die out, and back breeding may someday restore it to a more disease-resistant glory. In the meantime, hybrids between the American and Chinese species, such as the Celestial Chestnut, offer both vigor and blight resistance.
You’ll need at least two trees for proper pollination, but it’s a good idea to plant more to increase the odds that at least a couple will survive. They should be set out in sandy, well-drained soil, with an acidic pH between 4.5 and 6.5, in a location which receives at least six hours of full sun per day. If your soil is heavy clay, plant the saplings high—as on a slope or knoll—and wide to keep them handsome.
“Wide” means that you should position the trees 20 to 40 feet apart. So they don’t have to compete with other roots, keep a 2 to 3-foot wide weed-free circle around each sapling. If you mulch that area, pull the mulch a few inches back from the trunk to give your tree some breathing space.
Hybrid chestnuts generally bloom younger than the American species did. So, if all goes well, your saplings should blossom out in pale green catkins about 3 to 5 years after you plant them. That means you could be pulling your own chestnuts from the fire in the not too distant future!