Metro-East Living

Chestnut trees are making a comeback

By Charles Giedeman

For the News-Democrat

Brown, curled leaves on an American Chestnut tree indicate it was killed by blight.
Brown, curled leaves on an American Chestnut tree indicate it was killed by blight. Tribune News Service

Q: I’ve read that white tail deer enjoy chestnuts, and there is a variety called Dunstan that is resistant to the blight of many years ago. Can you tell me if the variety would likely be successful in the local Kaskaskia River bottoms? Any guidance you might provide for purchasing and achieving a successful transplant would be appreciated.

F. B. of Belleville

A: The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was one of the most dominant trees in the eastern United States before 1906 when the chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) spread from the east coast to eliminate almost all the chestnut trees in North America. I was fortunate to see one chestnut tree growing from stump sprouts in the Land between the Lakes in Tennessee in 1991, but not too many botanists can brag about viewing a live chestnut tree.

In early 1950s a nut grower — James Carpenter of Salem, Ohio — discovered an American chestnut tree growing in a grove of dead and dying trees. He tried to infect the tree with active spores and mycelia but no infection resulted. Carpenter then sent some bud wood to Dr. Robert Dunstan (another nut enthusiast) who was well known for breeding and grafting various trees in North Carolina. Dunstan grafted the scion twigs onto to ordinary rootstock and had good success. Later the USDA released some new chestnut selections and Dunstan then cross-pollinated these new selections, which were a cross of Castanea dentata and C. mollissima.

Later, Dunstan moved his work to north-central Florida for a longer growing season. He planted a grove of 500 of these trees. By 1994 these trees grew to 50 feet tall and 12 to 16 inches in diameter and were bearing nuts every year at this stage. The nuts are valuable to wildlife, especially deer, turkeys and squirrels. Humans like them because of their sweeter flavor.

The nuts are large, only 15 to 35 nuts in a pound. Other chestnut varieties require 35 to 100 nuts for a pound. The nuts are covered with spines, which make them hard to handle while they are on the tree. But when they fall off the tree on to the soil, the spines are less of a problem. These nuts are very sweet to eat. The Dunstan trees are very well suited for plant zones 5 to 9; the metro-east is in zone 6.

The Dunstan variety does better with other types of chestnut trees planted nearby for cross-pollination and usually begin bearing nuts after 3 to 5 years of age. The Dunstan trees do carry a large price of $30 or more for a 1-year-old tree. Other varieties are slightly cheaper. Most of these trees can be found on the Internet by just typing in American chestnut trees or Dunstan trees.

These trees should work well in the Kaskaskia River bottoms, but on higher ground not prone to flooding. Mix about three trees to an acre. With the floodplain, you should not need any of the soil amendments of fertilizers to be successful.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to pkuhl@bnd.com.

Do it now

  • CATALOG SHOPPING: Begin going through the seed catalogs that have started to arrive in the mail. Remember what worked for you last year, and try something new this year to keep your plant curiosity going.
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