American Chestnut Tree Information – How To Grow American Chestnut Trees

American Chestnut Tree Information – How To Grow American Chestnut Trees

By: Liz Baessler

Chestnuts are rewarding trees to grow. With beautiful foliage, tall, strong structures, and often heavy and nutritious nut yields, they’re a great choice if you’re looking to grow trees. Planting American chestnut trees can be tricky though. Keep reading to learn American chestnut tree information and how to grow American chestnut trees.

Planting American Chestnut Trees in Landscapes

Before you go about planting American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata), you should have a little American chestnut tree information. American chestnut trees used to be found all over the eastern United States. In 1904, however, a fungus all but wiped them out. The fungus is difficult to manage.

It can take ten years to appear, at which time, it kills the aboveground part of the tree. The roots survive but they store the fungus, meaning any new shoots the roots put up will experience the same problem. So how can you go about planting American chestnut trees? First of all, the fungus is native to the eastern United States. If you live elsewhere, you should have better luck, although it’s not guaranteed the fungus won’t also strike there.

Another option is to plant hybrids that have been crossed with Japanese or Chinese chestnuts, close relatives that are much more resistant to the fungus. If you’re really serious, the American Chestnut Foundation is working with growers both to fight the fungus and to form new breeds of American chestnut that are resistant to it.

Caring for American Chestnut Trees

When you decide to start planting American chestnut trees, it’s important to begin early in the spring. The trees grow best when American chestnut tree nuts are sown directly in the ground (with the flat side or sprout facing down, half an inch to an inch (1-2.5 cm.) deep) as soon as the soil is workable.

Pure varieties have an extremely high germination rate and should grow fine this way. Some hybrids don’t germinate as well, and can be started indoors. Plant the nuts as early as January in pots at least 12 inches (31 cm.) deep.

Harden them off gradually after all threat of frost has passed. Plant your trees in very well drained soil in a spot that receives at least six hours of light per day.

American chestnuts can’t self-pollinate, so if you want nuts, you need at least two trees. Since the trees are a many year investment and don’t always make it to maturity, you should start out with no fewer than five to ensure that at least two survive. Give each tree at least 40 feet (12 m.) of space on every side, but plant it no farther than 200 feet (61 m.) from its neighbors, as American chestnuts are pollinated by the wind.

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Plants→Castanea→American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)

General Plant Information (Edit)
Plant Habit: Tree
Life cycle: Perennial
Sun Requirements: Full Sun
Full Sun to Partial Shade
Water Preferences: Mesic
Dry Mesic
Dry
Soil pH Preferences: Very strongly acid (4.5 – 5.0)
Strongly acid (5.1 – 5.5)
Moderately acid (5.6 – 6.0)
Slightly acid (6.1 – 6.5)
Minimum cold hardiness: Zone 3 -40 °C (-40 °F) to -37.2 °C (-35)
Maximum recommended zone: Zone 8b
Plant Height : 50 to 100 feet
Plant Spread : 50 to 70 feet
Leaves: Deciduous
Fruit: Edible to birds
Other: edible to squirrels, mammals, and people
Fruiting Time: Late summer or early fall
Fall
Flowers: Showy
Fragrant
Flower Color: Yellow
Flower Time: Summer
Underground structures: Taproot
Uses: Shade Tree
Edible Parts: Seeds or Nuts
Wildlife Attractant: Bees
Resistances: Drought tolerant
Pollinators: Various insects
Miscellaneous: Tolerates poor soil
Monoecious

June brings the end of school, Father's Day and summer. Summer brings hot weather and plants may need extra water. Honey bees will also need extra water to keep the hive cool.

Honey bees get pollen and honeydew from this plant.

The American Chestnut was a very common tree in the eastern US that was know to grow up to about 120 feet in the Appalachians, though usually it was more about 50 to 75 feet high and wide.The American Chestnut was hit hard by the Chestnut Blight from east Asia back in the 1920's, after some Asian Chestnuts were planted in the Bronx Zoological Park in 1903, and about 99% or more died off, though there are sprouts that still come up from old tree stumps and grow for some years before the fungus kills them back down. A very few did survive, having natural resistance in various spots. These American survivors are being propagated to bring forth pure American trees that have good resistance to the blight.The American Chestnut Society has interbred the American species with the Chinese with a number of back crossings to now approaching trees that will be 15/16th American and will have resistance to the disease. Also it has been found that a gene from wheat inserted into chestnut cells gives resistance to the fungus by giving the tree an enzyme that breaks down the acid chemical (oxalic acid) from the fungus that causes damage. Therefore, the tree will be coming back in the near future. Some are being planted now. (In the 1950's a large American Chestnut in Ohio was discovered that was well resistant to the blight among a grove of dying and dead trees some budwood was sent to a Dr. Robert Dunston in North Carolina who bred the stock with some cultivars of Chinese Chestnut and backcrossed some with parent American and Chinese Chestnuts and came up with the Dunston Hybrid Chestnuts that probably are about 2/3rd American on average, that are more upright and straight like the American, but more spreading with bigger nuts like the Chinese.) The American Chestnut species grows about 2 feet/year and lives over 200 years. Its native range is from Maine down to central Mississippi and as far west as areas in Indiana and southern Michigan. The leaves, buds, and stems of this American species are glabrous, meaning hairless, though there can be a little hair on the midrib underneath. The leaves are 5 to 11 inches long and 1.75 to 2 inches (to 3 inches) wide and the leaf is widest in the middle area. The large teeth on the margins are sort of hooked or curved. The twigs are smooth, hairless, reddish-brown with small white lenticels. The Smooth, reddish-brown buds are pointed or longer than wide and stick out from the stem. The 2 to 3 nuts in the spiny capsules are sweet and 1/2 to 1 inch wide. (The Chinese Chestnut that is occasionally planted around, has at least hair on the veins underneath the leaves and has some hair on the buds and stems. The Chinese species normally is shorter, often multi-leadered, and more wide spreading with larger nuts of 3/4 to 2 inches wide.)

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$24.00/tree includes specialized 60” tree Protector, Stake, weedmat, controlled release fertilizer, and mycorrhizal.

Hybrid Chestnut orchard full of original Dunstan Chestnuts.

Hybrid Chestnut seed still on the tree getting ready to ripen.

Drop Times through the hunting season

We have hybrid chestnut trees that genetically drop every month from August to November. These trees were developed by crossing American with Chinese, similar to the way Dunstan Chestnut trees were developed. The chestnuts are a sweet bite size nut the deer can’t resist. They should start producing nuts in 3-5 years.

A comparison between the Gobbler Chestnut and Hybrid chestnut size. The Gobbler Chestnut Seeds on the left and hybrid chestnut seed on the right.

Gobbler Chestnut

The Gobbler Chestnut was developed similiar to the Dunstan as well, but with a dime to nickle size nut that is perfect for the turkey as well as deer. The turkey will come from miles away to get a taste of the seed. These will begin to drop their seed in September into October. Perfect for the fall archery season is most states.


Chestnut trees can be found in Oregon

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Edible chestnuts are bilaterally flattened, and horse chestnuts are flattened on one side only. (Photo: Statesman Journal file) Buy Photo

Question: I saw some chestnuts at the market last weekend. Can chestnuts be grown in Oregon? I thought they went extinct in North America due to disease.

Answer: Chestnut trees do grow in the Pacific Northwest. Chestnut trees, genus Castanea, are indigenous to Europe, Asia and North America.

American chestnut (C. dentata) trees were once common in the Eastern United States, from Maine to Georgia and west to the Ohio Valley. They grew in large stands when the early settlers arrived.

Just after 1900, chestnut blight, a lethal fungus infection introduced from Asia, was discovered in New York and quickly spread among the chestnut population. By 1940, nearly 100 percent of American chestnuts had been killed throughout the Eastern United States.

These stately trees commonly grew to 100 feet tall with a diameter of 5 feet. Trees with a diameter of 10 feet were not uncommon. They often were called the “redwood of the East.” Growing in the open, they spread into wide dense shade trees with dark-green foliage.

If they grew surrounded by other trees in the forest, American chestnuts took on a columnar form with few lower branches, producing straight, knot-free wood that was straight-grained and resistant to rot. They made up to about 25 percent of Eastern U.S. Forests. This close-grown hardwood was prized for furniture and lumber.

The nuts of the chestnut tree were a staple food for settlers. In the late 19th century, they were harvested and shipped in great quantities to big cities in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many species of wildlife depended on them for food, including deer, wild turkeys, bear and squirrels. The harvest from wild trees was so abundant that settlers fed them to livestock.

Currently, the U.S. commercial chestnut crop here is very small, but increasing. Most of the highest-quality chestnuts grown in Oregon are shipped to upscale markets in California and back east. The trees have been selected and bred from disease-resistant stock from around the world.

The Pacific Northwest has been free of chestnut blight since the 1930s. Isolated American chestnuts brought here by early settlers still are found in various locations in Western Oregon. The largest chestnut tree in the country is purported to be growing in a Sherwood vineyard.

Oregon prohibits importation of chestnut trees from east of the Rocky Mountains as a safeguard against the spread of chestnut blight, a strain of Phytophthora fungus, the same genus that causes sudden oak death.

Fortunately, scientists and growers have been working to breed and cultivate disease-resistant varieties for the future. To learn more about work to bring back the chestnut tree, visit the American Chestnut Tree Foundation website: acf.org and the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Center’s website: agmrc.org/commodities__products/nuts/chestnuts.

National Geographic also has an article online that includes a lot about chestnut restoration efforts at: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/11/resurrecting-a-forest.

Many of the chestnut trees found growing in the Northwest are horse chestnut trees. Do not eat the nuts they are highly toxic. They are shunned by squirrels and toxic to horses. In humans, they can cause paralysis and death.

Edible chestnuts are bilaterally flattened, and horse chestnuts are flattened on one side only. If the husks still are on the nut or the nuts still on the tree, differentiating is easier. True chestnut husks look like little porcupines, covered with sharp needles and are difficult to pick up. Horse chestnut husks are smoother with only a few bumps or warts.

If you buy chestnuts at the market this holiday season, they’ll already be husked. They still have a smooth inner shell. Here’s how to roast them: Slit a cross (or at least poke a hole) in the flat end of each nut to keep it from exploding in the heat. Roast them in a shallow baking pan at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, stirring and tossing occasionally. Serve hot, and peel as you eat. Unlike most nuts, they are low in fat.


The USDA Should Let People Plant Blight-Resistant American Chestnut Trees

The American chestnut was once the dominant hardwood species in Appalachian mountain forests, comprising as much as 40 percent of the overstory trees in the climax forests of the Eastern United States. Foresters used to quip that an enterprising squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia on the interlocking branches of chestnut trees. The fast-growing American chestnuts often reached five feet in diameter and 60–100 feet in height.

Then came the Asian chestnut blight in the early 20th century that killed over 3 billion American chestnuts basically causing the tree to become functionally extinct throughout its natural range. The blight fungus was probably brought to America on imported nursery stock of Chinese chestnuts. American trees had simply never evolved resistance to this parasite. The American chestnut is now almost entirely gone from the landscape except for a few stumps in the woods that still produce shoots that the blight kills before they reach 15 feet in height.

For more than 30 years, the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) has been engaged in a privately financed program in which its geneticists have been crossbreeding American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts. The goal is to produce an American chestnut tree that retains essentially only the blight resistance genes from the Chinese chestnut tree.

More recently, the ACF has been collaborating with researchers at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to use modern biotechnology to endow American chestnut trees with blight resistance. To that end, the researchers have added a gene from wheat that produces the enzyme oxalate oxidase that breaks down the oxalic acid the fungus uses to attack chestnut trees. It works the added gene does indeed protect American chestnuts from the blight.

Now the ACF and ESF researchers are officially petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give their blight-resistant American chestnut "nonregulated status" which would allow the blight-tolerant bioengineered trees to be planted without restriction as part of restoration programs.

However, a coterie of anti-biotech activists organized as The Campaign to STOP GE Trees are opposing the petition to the USDA. To justify their opposition to blight-resistant genetically-engineered American chestnuts, the campaigners cite the precautionary principle. But the precautionary principle measures only risks and not benefits of new technologies and amounts to arguing that we should "never do anything for the first time," as I've previously argued. In this case, the activists assert that since researchers do not know absolutely all of the possible consequences of planting blight-resistant American chestnut trees, then none should be planted. Perplexingly, the activists ignore the glaring fact that we do know what the deleterious ecological and economic consequences of having no blight-resistant chestnut trees have been.

In fact, extensive research by the ACF and ESF finds no significant ecological effects from inserting the oxalate oxidase gene, apart from enhancing blight tolerance. The researchers point out that their blight-resistant "chestnuts retain 100 percent of their natural complement of genes no native genes or alleles have been removed or replaced, and expression of nearby genes is not affected." In other words, except for the blight-resistant trait, their trees are, in all relevant respects, genetically identical to natural American chestnuts.

In addition, the researchers point out there are no negative human health issues since the oxalate oxidase gene is naturally present in many food crops and is non-allergenic. After all, people have been eating that enzyme in bread for millennia.

In their USDA petition, the researchers observe that if their blight-resistant American chestnuts are granted nonregulated status by the USDA, they will be made available for not-for-profit distribution to the public, and to groups including private, indigenous, state, and federal restoration programs. If the USDA regulators do grant their trees nonregulated status, they can then "be planted like wild-type or traditionally bred chestnuts to accomplish meaningful conservation and restoration of the American chestnut." Perhaps squirrels could once again travel from Maine to Georgia through the branches of restored chestnut forests by the end of this century.

Disclosures: I have occasionally made small contributions to the ACF in the past and will do so again soon. I have also made a public comment at the USDA in favor of granting nonregulated status to the blight-resistant chestnut trees.


Watch the video: Growing American Chestnut Trees from Seed