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Nut Trees - The Chestnuts

( Originally Published 1927 )

Chestnut and Chinquapin

Castanea dentata, Borh., and C. pumila, Mill.

Our native chestnut and its little brother, the chinquapin, are the American cousins of the sweet chestnut of southern Europe. Japan has contributed to American horticulture a native species which bears large but not very sweet nuts, that are good when cooked. Our two trees bear sweet nuts, of a flavor that no mode of cooking improves. In truth, there is no finer nut; and the time to enjoy it to the highest degree is a few weeks after the frost opens the burs and lets the nuts fall. "Along about Thanksgiving," they have lost some of their moisture and are prime.

In foreign countries the chestnut is a rich, nourishing food, comparable to the potato. Who could go into ecstasies over a vegetable that is a staple food for the peasants of Europe, Asia, and North Africa? Our chestnut is no staple. It is a delicacy. It is treasure trove from the autumn woods, and the gathering of the crop is a game in which boys and squirrels are rivals.

Ernest Thompson Seton, always a boy, knows the impatience with which the opening of the burs is watched for, as the belated frosts keep off, and the burs hang tantalizingly closed. The cruel wounds made by the spines and the raw taste of the immature nuts are poor recompense for the labor of nutting before Nature gives the sign that all's ready.

Here is Mr. Seton's estimate of the chestnut of "brown October's woods."

"Whenever you see something kept under lock and key, bars and bolts, guarded and double-guarded, you may be sure it is very precious, greatly coveted. The nut of this tree is hung high aloft, wrapped in a silk wrapper, which is enclosed in a case of sole leather, which again is packed in a mass of shock-absorbing, vermin-proof pulp, sealed up in a waterproof, iron-wood case, and finally cased in a vegetable porcupine of spines, almost impregnable. There is no nut so protected; there is no nut in our woods to compare with it as food."

What a disaster then is the newly arisen bark disease that has already killed every chestnut tree throughout large areas in the Eastern states. Scientists have thus far struggled with it in vain and it is probable that all chest-nuts east of the Rockies are doomed.

Chinquapins grow to be medium-sized trees in Texas and Arkansas, but east of the Mississippi they are smaller, and east of the Alleghanies, mere shrubby undergrowth, covering rocky banks or crouching along swamp borders. They are smaller throughout, but resemble the chestnut in leaf, flowers, and fruit. The bur contains a single nut.

The chestnut tree grows large and attains great age, its sturdy, rough gray trunk crowned with an oblong head of irregular branches, hidden in summer by the abundant foliage mass. (See illustration, page 23.) The ugly cripple that lightning has maimed covers its wounds when May wakes the late-opening buds and the leaves attain full size.

Each leaf tapers at both ends, its length three or four times its width. Strong-ribbed and sharp-toothed, and wavy on the midrib, dark, polished, like leather, these units form a wonderful dome, lightened in midsummer by the pencil-like plumes of the staminate flowers, with the fertile ones at their bases. As autumn comes on the leaf crown turns to gold, and the mature fruits are still green spiny balls. The first frost and the time to drop the nuts are dates that every schoolboy knows come close together.

When a chestnut tree falls by the axe, the roots restore the loss by sending up sprouts around the stump. The mouldering pile nourishes a circle of young trees, full of vigor, because they have the large tree's roots gathering food for them. No wonder their growth is rapid.

Besides this mode of reproduction, chestnut trees, growing here and there throughout a mixed forest, are the off-spring of trees whose nuts were put away, or dropped and lost by squirrels. When spring relieves the danger of famine, many of the rodent class abandon their winter stores before they are all devoured. Such caches add many nut trees to our native woods.

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