A true American chestnut

IMG_1471When I was a young lad growing up in New Jersey, there were still a few big chestnut trees in the neighborhood. When we kids took the “long” unaccompanied one-mile trek to Finnerty’s candy store, we would take a shortcut through a neighbor’s yard with a huge specimen chestnut tree. We took great pains to circumvent passing underneath its crown which was littered with big round stiff and prickly burs. But we always stopped to pick one up — it felt like the spines could easily draw blood.

That tree died, as did almost every other one of the estimated four billion chestnut trees that made up 25% of the great ‘Chestnut-Oak’ forests east of the Mississippi. But for years afterwards, in the Smokey Mountains and elsewhere, you could regularly find sprouts that had shot up from the still-vital roots from where there had once been a forest tree. Unfortunately the sprouts never amounted to much. They certainly never grew large enough to set fruit before they were once again attacked by the introduced pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica. My understanding is that it is becoming quite rare to find chestnut sprouts any longer.

IMG_1463Once in a while you will run into a healthy specimen in somebody’s yard. These trees were grown from saplings distributed by various state agencies in an attempt to re-establish the species (or at least remind people of their dendrological heritage). I found one on N Whitman Circle in Loch Alpine this morning.

IMG_1468You could think of the chestnut tree as being a kind of beech tree on steroids. The leaves of chestnuts are much larger that those of beech, and rather than a little spiny beech-nut husk, you get a formidable hedge-hog of a fruit. Buds are blunt and round rather than pointed like those of beech.

There is no relation between the true chestnut (Castanea dentata) and the common horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastananum). The latter is related to the buckeye, and bears palmately-compound leaves and inedible (if you are not a rodent or goat) fruit. Chestnuts are related to oaks. Horse-chestnuts are more closely related (botanically) to the maple.