Of all the nut trees, the chestnut must be the most romantic: No poet has immortalized the spreading walnut tree, no lyricist captured the mood of filberts roasting by an open fire. But in the past 80 years the chestnut romance has been a tragic one, for the American chestnut (Castanea dentata)—once an important forest and timber tree and the source of small but flavorful nuts—has been brought to the edge of extinction in its native range by an exotic bark disease. It survives in its old territory as stump sprouts, many of which reach bearing age before being hit again by the blight.
Experimentation continues in the quest for a blight-resistant seedling and the creation of hybrids between the American species and European and Asian chestnuts that will capture the American nut quality.
Currently the American chestnut can be grown safely only in blight-free regions west of the Rocky Mountains.
The chestnuts generally available for home planting include the European chestnut (also called Spanish or Italian), the Chinese chestnut, and hybrids between European and Chinese that involve the American species. The Japanese chestnut, C. crmata, produces a large nut. but the quality is inferior to that of the others.
Chinese chestnut, C. mollissima, will grow in regions that produce good peaches; the tree is hardy to about -15° E It is slightly susceptible to chestnut blight, but pruning out infected branches usually controls the problem. The mature size is 60 feet high with a spread of 40 feet. Compared to the European chestnut, the nuts are smaller— although nut size varies—and it is drier and not as highly flavored.
European chestnut (C. saliva) can reach 100 feet tall by 100 feet wide, though 40 to 60 feet in both directions is more typical in gardens. Its successful range is the same as that for its Chinese counterpart except that blight susceptibility rules it out of eastern gardens. Nuts are larger and more flavorful than are those of the Chinese species. European chestnuts are the chestnuts usually sold in markets.
Hybrid chestnuts are becoming more widely available as nut growers strive for the perfect combination of a large, flavorful nut on a blight-resistant tree. Most hybrids are simply sold as seedlings, usually with ancestry indicated.
Chestnuts grow rapidly, starting to bear three to five years after planting. Despite their fast growth they are long-lived trees. All chestnuts are big trees, definitely a consideration where space is limited. And for a nut crop you need another tree as a pollinator. The trees are an ongoing source of litter—from fallen catkins in spring (bearing pollen that many people find foul smelling), burrs at harvest time, and fallen autumn foliage that is prickly and tough.
The best soil is one that is deep, well-drained, not alkaline, and reasonably fertile. Young trees achieve best growth with regular watering; mature trees will need some supplementary watering only where summers are hot and dry. If the soil is good, the trees usually need no fertilizer.
Chestnut burrs split open in early fall, releasing one to three nuts. Gather up the harvest daily, dry nuts for a day or two in the sun, then store dry at a cool but not freezing temperature.
Chestnut blight, as mentioned above, determines which chestnuts will grow where. In blight-infested regions only the Chinese chestnut and possibly a few hybrids are safe to plant. Wherever oak-root fungus is present in the West, plant the resistant European chestnut, American chestnut, or hybrids between the two.
'Colossal' One of a few-named hybrids, this is sold in the West. In ancestry it is at least part European. The nuts are large, flavorful, and peel easily. Origin: California. 'Silver Leaf This hybrid is so named because the leaf undersides turn silver at the time of nut fall. Smaller than 'Colossal' but with similar sweet flavor. Origin: Unknown.
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