Chestnuts: Corn on Trees

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Sun, Feb 23, 2014 - 2:55pm


An unsung hero of the permaculture world is the chestnut tree. It was a common food source for millennia, until their popularity declined during the last few centuries, partly due to their reputation of providing "food for poor people." And it was a reliable provider: unlike some nut trees, chestnuts produce a prolific amount of nuts every year. Chestnuts are the only nuts with vitamin C and are very high in carbohydrates. Their carbohydrate content compares with that of wheat and rice, and chestnuts have twice as much starch as potatoes. They are, literally, like corn that grows on trees.

The chestnut tree is in the beech family (Fagaceae), in the genus Castanea, and it's native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Of the several species I want to single out certain varieties for the home gardener.

First, bear in mind that chestnut flowers are not self-compatible, so two trees are required for pollination. Note that all Castanea species readily hybridize with each other, so these two trees need not be the same species of chestnut.

Next, lets talk about heights. The chinkapins are small and shrubby, but some varieties get quite tall.  The height of your land matters, too. Most chestnuts don't grow as well close to sea level - but they do grow.  And the trees last a long time: there's a 500-ear-old chestnut in England, and there are chestnut trees near Mt. Etna in Italy that have been producing nuts since Roman times.  A thousand-year-plus bearing capacity makes the ten-year wait for nuts seem reasonable.

Lastly, let's talk about the American Chestnut and how it was decimated by a blight in the early 1900s. Although genetic material survived and they are being genetically modified to be disease resistant, these cultivars are not ready yet, and the European sweet chestnut is not as resistant as the Japanese and Chinese chestnuts, so (for now) most home gardeners are better off using oriental varieties.

Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata, or Kuri in Japanese) is a species of chestnut originally native to Japan and South Korea. It is a small to medium-sized deciduous tree that grows to 30 to 50 ft (about 10-15 m) tall. Very tasty. Prefers higher elevations, 600-ft above sea level or more, but will grow in lower ones.

Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) is native to China, Taiwan, and Korea. The trees are taller than the Japanese varieties--they get about 65-ft (20 meters) high--and the nuts are larger, too.  Plus, if you live nearer to sea level, it's happier there than other varieties. If your area has acidic soil this is the chestnut for you (unless you live in CA, FL, LA, MI, OR, and WA - there are restrictions for eastern chestnuts shipped to those states.) Supposedly it likes full sun, but is listed as a understory tree so it is no doubt tolerant of partial shade.

If you want to try a shrubby chinkapin, there are hybrids of American chinkapins and oriental ones available at Empire Chestnut Company, but note that they are listed as a "wildlife chestnut." (It is worth noting here that I recently read about a permaculture farmer who is fattening his pigs with chestnuts - it imparts a nice flavor to the meat and he gets top-dollar for it.)

Other reliable places to purchase chestnut trees: Stark Brothers, The Arbor Day Foundation, and Chestnut Hill Tree Farm.

American chestnuts have already been genetically modified to resist chestnut blight, and limited quantities of backcross chestnuts are in test orchards. They are expected to be highly-blight resistant and very American chestnut in character. But the improved American chestnut seeds, never mind seedling trees, are for initial testing and research only and are not available to gardeners yet. Seeds for gardeners and commercial growers are expected to be available for wider distribution in 7 to 15 years and only after testing proves the seeds to be worthy of out-planting. If you join The American Chestnut Foundation maybe you can help with the testing.

I cannot wait to start growing chestnuts in the woods behind our house. The flowers are said to smell wonderful, and the nuts taste great. An altogether wonderful tree.

1 Comment

Don35's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 4 2012
Posts: 43
Great timing!

I just planted six Chinese chestnuts in a food forest of paw-paws, asian pears, jujubes, and more. Looking forward to sampling them. Thanks for the info!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Login or Register to post comments