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University of Nebraska–Lincoln

UNL Extension in Lancaster County

Horticulture

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American Chestnut

by
Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose….” We’re all familiar with this popular holiday song, but have you ever wondered how to roast chestnuts? Or exactly what a chestnut tree looks like? (Nebraska's Champion American Chestnut Tree)

Once, American chestnut was a major component of eastern forests from Maine to Michigan and south to Alabama and Mississippi. Called the ‘Redwood of the East’ because of the tremendous size of mature trees, American chestnuts made up approximately 25% of forests in the eastern United States. When chestnuts bloomed in spring, the Appalachian mountains appeared covered in snow. The trees were an important part of the rural economy, as a source of highly rot-resistant lumber, and the nuts a major food source for wildlife. Trainloads of chestnuts were sent to eastern cities to be roasted and sold by street vendors during the holidays. However, today the American chestnut has been reduced to merely an under-story shrub in eastern forests.

So what happened to this great tree? It’s one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American forestry. Chestnut canker or blight, Cryphonectria parasitic, was the culprit, an Asian fungus to which American chestnut had, and to this day has, little resistance. It is likely plant enthusiasts inadvertently brought the fungus into the United States in the late 1800’s on imported plants. The disease was first spotted by sharp-eyed groundskeepers in 1904 killing chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Over the next 50 years, the disease swept through eastern forests destroying native tree stands. Spread by fungal spores, the disease causes branch cankers that girdle and kill the stems. Everything above the canker dies. Often infected trees re-sprout from the base, but the new shoots only live for a few years before they are re-infected.

Efforts are underway by the American Chestnut Foundation, founded in 1983, to breed trees with resistance to the disease. To accomplish this, American chestnuts are backcrossed with Chinese chestnuts, which do have resistance to the blight. Seedlings that show resistance are repeatedly backcrossed to American chestnut to eliminate more and more of the Chinese chestnut characteristics, except for disease resistance. For more information on chestnuts and chestnut blight, visit the American Chestnut Foundation, http://www.acf.org.

Roasting Chestnuts


Although American chestnuts are not available, nuts from European chestnut, Castanea sativa, can still be found in specialty grocery stores.

So how do you roast chestnuts? With a sharp knife, make an incision through the smooth outer skin and textured inner skin on the rounded side of each nut. This allows steam to escape and prevents the nuts from bursting during roasting. Roast the nuts over an open fire in a wire popcorn basket or special chestnut roasting pan, shaking periodically, for 15-20 minutes. Allow the nuts to cool slightly before peeling and eating. Chestnuts can also be roasted in the oven after scoring, at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-25 minutes. Place them in a shallow pan, and turn them over mid-way through the roasting time.

A Chestnut by Another Name...


American chestnut should not be confused with horse-chestnut, a tree found in some Nebraska landscapes. American chestnut, a member of the beech family, is native to the United States and has 1-3 sweet, edible nuts enclosed in a very prickly bur. It has simple, oblong-pointed leaves that alternate up the stems. Horse-chestnut, a member of the buckeye family, was introduced to the United States from Europe. It has palmate leaves made up of 5-7 individual leaflets and an inedible nut enclosed in a spiny, light brown, leathery capsule.

As you travel this holiday season, keep in mind that the restrictions on bringing plant material into the United States is an important effort of the United State Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) to prevent another devastating disease or insect pest, like chestnut blight, from damaging our forests and crops.



This resource was added December 2012 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office


Contact Information University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lancaster County
Web site: lancaster.unl.edu
444 Cherrycreek Road, Suite A, Lincoln, NE 68528 | 402-441-7180