What are Chinese Chestnuts?

How to Grow Chinese Chestnut Trees

Chinese chestnuts (Castanea dentata) are a species of nut with large round seeds that have been cultivated since ancient times. They were first introduced into China from Japan in the late 19th century. Today they are grown throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted but most commonly used in desserts such as cake, cookies and pastries.

The Chinese chestnut tree is native to China and it was brought to the United States in 1887 when American settlers planted them along the Oregon Trail. These early immigrants called these trees “chestnuts” because of their resemblance to those found in New England forests. However, these early colonists did not realize that they were actually a member of the family Fabaceae (Fruit Family).

In the early 20th century, Chinese immigrants began planting chestnuts commercially in California. By 1940 there were over 50 million trees in California and this number continues to increase today. The trees are now widely distributed across the United States and Canada. In fact, many Americans still refer to chestnuts as “the little red brothers.”

Chestnut trees are susceptible to several diseases including blight, powdery mildew and root rot. The American Chestnut Foundation is working to breed blight-resistant trees that can thrive in the environment.

The trees are commonly found in hardwood forests, especially along streams and on hillsides. These plants prefer well-drained, loamy soil and they grow very rapidly. In fact, a sapling can grow up to 1 foot per year!

The bark is grayish brown with dark flecks that eventually becomes smooth and dark brown with age. The leaves are alternate and elliptical in shape with fine hairs on both surfaces. They are also unequally lobed and pointed at the tip. The tree produces catkins that range in color from green to tan.

The fruits are rounded, brown pods that contain large seeds. These pods split open when they are ripe and release the glossy brown shells.

Sources & references used in this article:

Chinese chestnut production in the United States: practice, problems, and possible solutions by JA Payne, RA Jaynes, SJ Kays – Economic Botany, 1983 – Springer

Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) as a niche crop in the central region of the United States by MR Warmund – HortScience, 2011 – journals.ashs.org

Evolution of the chestnut tree and its blight by SL Anagnostakis, B Hillman – Arnoldia, 1992 – arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu

Signatures of selection in the genomes of Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima Blume): the roots of nut tree domestication by NR LaBonte, P Zhao, K Woeste – Frontiers in plant science, 2018 – frontiersin.org

The chestnut-blight parasite (Endothia parasitica) from China by CL Shear, NE Stevens – Science, 1913 – JSTOR

Growing chinese chestnuts in Missouri by K Hunt, M Gold, W Reid… – University of Missouri …, 2009 – researchgate.net

Graft compatibility among chestnut (Castanea) species by H Huang, JD Norton, GE Boyhan… – Journal of the American …, 1994 – journals.ashs.org

Chinese chestnut production in the southeastern United States: practice, problems, and possible solutions by JA Payne – Prcreedings of the American Chestnut Symp) sium, 1978 – fs.usda.gov

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