ONE BREEZY MORNING, whilst still home in my pajamas, I could tell the Chinese chestnuts down the road were in bloom. Although various books call the smell “noxious,” “unpleasant,” or (most kindly) “heavy,” I rather like getting a whiff of the late June air that signals this annual event. That’s because not every neighborhood has these interesting trees, and they remind me of the muddle of plants we call chestnuts.
So let’s start with the aforementioned stinker, known botanically as Castanea mollisima. It’s a handsome, broadly rounded tree, growing to perhaps 60 feet, with heavily toothed, elongated leaves. The early summer flowers give rise to prickly pods that contain beautiful chestnut-brown chestnuts, an inch or more across, which are edible and prized by those lucky enough to have at them. The tree is hardy in our area, tough and adaptable. Best of all is that Chinese chestnut is resistant to the fatal chestnut blight.
But yo! Whadda ‘bout dem nuts down in New York? Many wintertime tourists in Manhattan seek the wares of street vendors who sell a different nut, Castanea sativa, or the Spanish chestnut. In addition to roasting, chestnuts in general (and this species specifically) has been eaten in breads, cakes and candies for centuries. Unfortunately, Castanea sativa is neither as hardy nor as blight resistant as the Chinese type, so its cultivation in the eastern U.S. is very limited. In other words, forgetaboutit.
At one time, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was an important food and lumber tree, a key part of the eastern forests. Tragically, four billion members of this species were decimated in the early twentieth century by the chestnut blight, a fungus imported to New York City on foreign plant material in 1904. American chestnuts can still be found in the wild, but are extremely rare and often die back from the blight as they reach nut-bearing age. Scientists, special interest groups including The American Chestnut Foundation and other nut-o-philes are working on Chinese-American hybrids, which promise to be very American yet have the Chinese disease resistance. Research is ongoing, so stay tuned.
Poking into the more obscure corners of botany, one comes across several other American chestnut species, including the Alleghany chinkapin (Castanea pumila), which is recorded as living on Long Island but is primarily found to our south and west.
How about the “chestnuts” which are not chestnuts at all? Consider the chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), which has leaves resembling a true chestnut but bears acorns like any other self-respecting Quercus. More confusing is the common horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) which features palmately compound leaves and a candelabrum of flowers, nothing like a Castanea. It does, however, bear a spiny fruit containing large chestnut-like nuts; don’t be tempted to taste them, however, as they are poisonous. Among this tree’s close kin is my alma mater’s favorite, the Ohio buckeye (A. glabra), subject of state university, football and candy legends. Also known as fetid buckeye, don’t tell my old college chums this one reeks, too.
To contact David Chinery, horticultural educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email