THE MOST USEFUL TREE
The chestnut is the most
useful tree in the world. There are 4 major species – American Chestnut
(Castanea dentata), European Chestnut (C. sativa), Chinese Chestnut (C.
mollissima) and Japanese Chestnut (C. crenata) and 9 less important species of
the genus Castanea in the world. Considering the importance of chestnuts as a high carbohydrate food
source for thousands of years, and the beautiful, rot-resistant wood that is
used from everything from vineyard stakes, fence posts to siding and bridge
timbers, and was a major source of tannin for tanning leather, is there any
tree that provides this range of uses and value? Oaks, pines, and fruit trees each provide single
uses for timber or food, and many have a larger total monetary value for the
that use or crop than chestnuts. However, no tree species in history has offered such a wide range of
uses or importance. It is little wonder
that chestnuts have been grown by every major culture, and transported in
conquests and explorations to every continent where it could be grown.
Chestnuts appear in the
fossil record over 85 Million years ago, in North America, Europe and Asia. The
13 existing species of the chestnut genus all inter-hybridize readily,
indicating that they are not highly differentiated from the parent species.
The European Chestnut is native
to the forests of the Caucasus region around the Black Sea. Chestnut is thought
to have gotten its name from the city Kastanis in what is now Georgia on the
east side of the Black Sea, and has been cultivated in this region for
thousands of years. The Arabic word
‘kastanat’ and Persian word ‘kastana’ originate from the Sanskrit word ‘kashta’
which means tree. Chestnut was the most
important tree species in ancient eastern Europe.
Chestnut was transported west
to Greece over 4,000 years ago, and Homer wrote about chestnut, calling the
nuts “marronia”. Theophrastus, the Greek ‘father of botany’ called chestnut the
“Dios balanos” or the Zeus Acorn (God’s acorn). The physician Hippocrates, the
Prophet Isaia, and the historian Xenophon all wrote of chestnut. There are
several towns in Greece today called Kastania. The nuts were harvested and
exported in trade with other countries. In Turkey today there are extensive
chestnut forests both wild and cultivated, and there are individual chestnut
trees that are more than 1,000 years old still alive. Imagine the bounty that
such a tree has produced throughout its life!
Merchants of ancient Rome brought
chestnut back with them. Because of its many uses, chestnut was prized by the
Romans and spread throughout their empire all over Europe - in Spain, Germany,
France and as far north as England. Today, in old Roman villages and settlements you can find chestnuts and
grapes planted as part of the way to provide food and wood for the
legionnaires. For instance, there are
chestnut trees growing along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, constructed by
the Romans to keep the wild Scottish tribes out of their settlements further
The Romans embarked on a
process to improve the quality of the nuts and wood, orchards were planted with
grafted trees, and forests in the mountainous regions were established for wood
production where traditional agriculture was not possible due to the steep
slopes. The monks at monasteries kept
the knowledge on how to graft and propagate the trees. King Charlemagne
directed planting of chestnuts during his reign. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, author
and army commander, discussed the planting of chestnuts in his work Naturalis Historia.
Today the results of these
efforts over the centuries have created different quality chestnuts based on
their characteristics. European chestnut
varieties are divided into two types – the large, sweet-flavored nuts called
marroni that are more readily peeled, and the less flavorful, smaller more
wild-type nuts called castagna or chataignes that are difficult to peel.
Today, much of the mountain
regions of Italy are chestnut forest, both cultivated for nut production and
uncultivated, that is used for timber and coppice. There are grafted orchards with trees that
are 500 years old still being harvested every year. The 1000 year old Chestnut of a Hundred
Horses still lives on the side of Mt. Etna, which sheltered Joanna of Aragon
and a hundred knights and horses.
The main areas of production
in Italy are Piemonte in the north, Tuscany and Umbria in central Italy, and Campania
and Calabria in the south. Italy is one
of the principal exporters of fresh chestnuts to Europe and the United States,
despite weathering an attack by the Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp.
Spain, France and Portugal
all have thriving chestnut export industries, as well as Turkey. Most of the other European countries that can
grow chestnuts have established industries that provide nuts for their local
Europeans have taken
chestnuts with them in their colonization of the world.There are orchard industries in Chile,
Argentina and Brazil, where the climate supports chestnut growth. Australia also has a small chestnut industry
that exports primarily to Japan during the opposite season, as well as provides
for its diverse ethnic populations.
Asia is the largest producer
and consumer of chestnuts in the world. The use of chestnuts as food over 9,000 years
ago in Japan is documented in carbonized nuts found in ancient villages. Recent
programs have mandated the large-scale establishment of chestnut orchards in
many different regions of China. China
and Korea are the largest producers of chestnuts in the world. The Chinese chestnut has a flavorful nut and
is resistant to chestnut blight. Korea grows
Chinese-Japanese cultivars. Japan is
also a major consumer of chestnuts. Japanese nuts are large, but do not have nearly as good a flavor as
Chestnuts were present in
North America during the Eocene Epoch, beginning over 50 Million years
ago. During the Pleistocene Ice Age 18,000
years ago, chestnut was pushed south as the temperate forests retreated to the
warmer climate near the Gulf of Mexico. As the glaciers receded, chestnut trees moved north as the temperate
forest expanded. The chestnut tree
became one of the dominant species in eastern North America from what is now southern
Maine, growing west to the Great Lakes and south to the Gulf Coast. The heart of the range was the Appalachians, where in some areas it made up almost 100% of the forest. In the cool, moist, temperate rainforest of the Smoky Mountains, trees grew 12' or more in diameter, and over 100' tall. The incredible mast production of the chestnut was the primary food for
all wildlife and game species - bear, deer, elk, squirrel, the huge flocks of turkey, and was a key food for Passenger Pigeons.
After the last ice age aboriginal
humans first colonized America via the Bering Sea Land Bridge. It is not surprising that archaeologists find
chestnut remains in many excavations all over the east, as the bountiful
harvest provided an important carbohydrate food supply during the fall that
could be stored through the winter. Unlike acorns, which had to be boiled for hours to remove the bitter tannin so they could be eaten, chestnuts were sweet right from the tree.
The early explorers such as Hernando de Soto and
colonists of America found this extensive primeval forest. Early accounts described the nuts as knee-deep under the trees during harvest! The rot-resistant timber was also prized, for the trees could be cut, and sprouts from the stumps regrew rapidly into straight-grained lumber. J. Russell Smith, the famous plant explorer, said "By the time a white oak acorn grows a baseball bat, a chestnut stump grows a railroad tie".
Chestnut became an important food source in the
fall for the early European settlers and was a key food source for the game
they harvested. American chestnuts are
small, but have a rich, nutty flavor. This gave rise to the culture
of eating chestnuts in the autumn at Thanksgiving and Christmas and
was memorialized in song and literature. Chestnuts were gathered in the forests, as well as some small groves
were planted to feed the growing urban population as the country developed. They were an important source of food for livestock, and hogs and cattle were fattened for the winter on the prolific crop. Wild trees were tended like orchards and having a grove was a valuable asset on your land. In the mountains, where the chestnut covered mile after mile of forest, the nuts were gathered by families and traded with the stores for goods, who shipped the nuts into the cities. There were not many things in the mountains besides moonshine to sell for cash, and chestnuts were an important part of the mountain economy every fall.
chestnuts were ripe I laid up half a bushel for winter. It was very exciting at
that season to roam the then boundless chestnut woods of Lincoln -- they now
sleep their long sleep under the railroad -- with a bag on my shoulder, and a
stick to open burs with in my hand, for I did not always wait for the frost,
amid the rustling of leaves and the loud reproofs of the red squirrels and the
jays, whose half-consumed nuts I sometimes stole, for the burs which they had
selected were sure to contain sound ones. Occasionally I climbed and shook the
trees. They grew also behind my house, and one large tree, which almost
overshadowed it, was, when in flower, a bouquet which scented the whole
neighborhood, but the squirrels and the jays got most of its fruit; the last
coming in flocks early in the morning and picking the nuts out of the burs
before they fell, I relinquished these trees to them and visited the more
distant woods composed wholly of chestnut. These nuts, as far as they went, were
a good substitute for bread." – Henry David Thoreau
However, in 1904, a bark
fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was
accidentally introduced from China into New York City that killed off virtually
the entire population of American Chestnuts throughout its range from Maine to
Georgia. The Chestnut Blight was easily
the greatest ecological disaster in American history, though it is almost
forgotten today. Over 30 million acres
of chestnut forest were killed in 40 years! Much of this loss occurred during the Great Depression, so the impact on
both the mountain people that ate chestnuts, and the game that depended on it
in the fall, was doubly devastating.
Few alive today remember
what these forests were like, just like the WWII veterans, most are gone now.
My grandfather Dr. Robert Dunstan, described the Smoky Mountains being like a sea of white with chestnut blossoms in the early summer. What remains of the original
chestnut forest exists today as wood in houses, barns and furniture. As the
trees died out, they were logged and many of the areas of the country that were
built during the 1930s were constructed of chestnut lumber. Today it is hard to find chestnut wood – it
has to be obtained from salvagers and recyclers from old buildings being torn
America today is the only
country in the world that can grow chestnuts that does not have an extensive
chestnut industry. This is in great part
due to the loss of the American chestnut. Unless you are of recently European or Asian heritage, chestnuts have
become lost in our memory. Americans
have not grown up with chestnuts as part of their food culture. Everyone can sing “chestnuts roasting on an
open fire” but few have ever eaten a chestnut, especially the younger
Today we have cultivars of
chestnuts that allow the establishment of an American chestnut industry, and
access to unique products made with chestnuts. We are at a time of rebirth of chestnut as an important food and
wildlife tree for North America
THE GRAIN THAT GROWS ON A TREE
Chestnut has been called the
Bread Tree – it has a been staple in the diet for people all over the world for
thousands of years. It is a very high
quality food source, with the nutritional makeup of a grain, yet grows on a
tree, without annual tillage of the soil, and can bear crops for 100s of years.
Nutritionally, chestnuts contain
40-45% carbohydrate, 5-8% protein, 2-3% fat, and the balance is water. Chestnuts are very low in fat and have no cholesterol. Nutritionally, chestnuts are similar to brown
rice, but with twice the protein and 1% of the sodium. The protein is very high
quality, with an amino acid balance similar to milk or egg, both of which are
considered the perfect protein. They
contain high amounts of Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Lysine, linoleic acid and sulfur-containing
amino acids. Chestnuts also contain high amounts of Potassium and Vitamin K,
and Vitamin C, B1, B2, and Niacin in levels similar to fresh fruit.
Chestnuts are also gluten
free, and can be incorporated into many foods as a gluten free flour
substitute. For more information on chestnut nutrition, click HERE.
By comparison, all other
nuts are very high in fat, as much as 50-60% (almonds, walnuts, etc). The
American Heart Association promotes a high carbohydrate, low fat, low sodium
diet as a principal defense against heart disease.
CHESTNUTS AS FOOD
Until the introduction of
the potato and maize from the New World, entire communities depended on
chestnuts as a primary source of food and carbohydrate. The mountain people’s culture revolved around
the chestnut. It was a staple in their
diet, being eaten fresh after harvest, then the stored ones were consumed, then
the dried chestnuts, and finally the sweet tasting flour, added to soups,
stews, polentas, and made into cakes and breads. Dried chestnuts will last a year, providing
food all the way to the next harvest. They were also fed to animals, and the
rot-resistant wood was used in building everything from fences to vineyards to
houses and barns.
Chestnut was survival for the
peasants during bad economic times. After the fall of the Roman Empire, during the Middle Ages, and during
the Great War and World War II, chestnuts were critical for the people of the
mountains, providing a very valuable source of carbohydrate. It is only
recently, with the movement of families into the industrialized cities, that
the dependence on the chestnut tree and its culture has declined.
were harvested by hand, raking the nuts and burrs into piles in the
mountainside orchards. The nuts and burrs were transported by mule and cart to
the homestead. Placed on the cool north
side of a building, the nuts and burrs were covered with a layer of green
chestnut leaves, where the nuts could be stored for several months.
To dry the nuts for longer
storage, the nuts were placed on a raised ventilated floor of special
buildings, where a chestnut wood fire was kept lit below, and the warmth and
smoke from the fire slowly dried out the nuts. Once dry, the shells could be
easily removed. To cook with these nuts,
they simply had to be re-hydrated again by boiling in water. The dried nuts were also ground into flour
with stone mills. The smoky sweet flavor
is excellent, as the carbohydrate turns to sugar as the nuts dry.
Chestnuts were also an
important food for livestock. The nuts
were fed to hogs and cattle during the winter, and the animals were put out
into the orchards after harvest to clean up the rest of the nuts. The sweet nuts impart a sweet flavor to the
meat, and chestnut-fed pork is considered a delicacy in Spain and Italy. Chestnut
leaves were also nutritious fodder for animals, and dried leaves were used as
bedding for livestock during winter.
Chestnut forests also
provide other delicacies. A number of edible mushrooms grow in association with
chestnut trees – including truffles, porcinis (Boletus edulis) Ceasar’s
mushroom (Amanita casearea), chanterelles (Cantarellus) and Russula mushrooms.
Honey made from chestnut
blossoms is not very sweet, but has an intense, distinctive and astringent
flavor. It is considered an aphrodisiac in Italy. Beekeepers depended on
chestnut, as the trees flower late after many of the other tree species have
USES OF WOOD
Chestnut wood has up to 20%
tannin content, the highest of all tree species. This makes the wood extremely rot
resistant. Chestnut trees, especially
when grown in forest settings, grow straight and make excellent lumber which
were cut into durable straight-grained planks or could be split easily for
fencing and posts. Dr. Robert Dunstan described how you could put a chestnut
fence post in the ground for 50 years, pull it up, turn it over, and get 50
more years out of the other side!
Because of this rot
resistance, chestnut wood was used for ship-building, bridge timbers, railroad
ties, exterior siding, barn and house posts and beams, flooring, doors, windows,
exterior trim and any other area that was exposed to the weather. Chestnut
tracks were used in the invasion of Normandy in WWII to get over the sandy
beaches. Chestnut was also made split
rail fences, fence posts, vineyard trellises, water well-casings, wine casks,
barrels, baskets, furniture and caskets. Chestnut is truly a tree that carries people from cradle to grave.
were coppiced for various uses. When the
tree is cut, the stumps send up multiple sprouts very readily (this is seen
today in America, where the roots survive the blight underground, and send up
shoots again and again, to become re-infected with the blight). The coppice shoots were harvested at various
cycles depending on the use. Vineyard
trellises and stakes were cut after only 2-3 years, fence posts after 10-20 years,
whereas saw logs were cut on a 50-70 year basis. Today there is still a strong demand for chestnut
timber as an alternative to chemically treated pine for exterior uses.
In Linville NC, chestnut
bark was used as shingles for siding many of the houses in this community. This was a traditional Appalachian building
technique, and many buildings survive today, including the beautiful All Saints
Episcopal Church, in which the entire building- beams, rafters and siding, was made of chestnut in the 1910.
Unfortunately today, 100 years later, there is no more chestnut wood left, so
Tulip Poplar bark has become a substitute, but it does not have the
rot-resistance of chestnut.
Tannin is extracted from the
wood for use in the tanning industry for dyeing silk and leather and in the
production of varnish and other products. The wood was finely ground and the tannin leached from the wood by
soaking in water. This traditional
industry was common in the mountains of northern Italy, but is declining due to
the use of substitute materials.
The Greek father of
pharmacology Dioscourides and the Roman Galen reported on the medicinal
qualities of chestnut.
Chestnut leaves have up to
95% tannin and high amounts of Vitamin K. Teas made from the leaves are a cure for respiratory diseases such as
whooping cough, and mixed with thyme makes a powerful medicinal syrup that is
used to treat cough, diarrhea, backache and intoxication.
Tea made from chestnut
flowers is supposed to cure sinusitis. An extract made with ethanol from chestnut
leaves and nuts has many pharmacological activities.
Milk made from ground
chestnuts is used as a lactose free alternative for children.
Chestnut honey, in addition
to its purported ability to enhance libido, is used in treating gastritis and
The high fiber content is
good for digestive health.
CHESTNUT TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS
Throughout the chestnut
regions of Europe, the end of chestnut harvest was celebrated with a large
banquet with much food and wine. This is similar to our Thanksgiving harvest celebration
in America. All Saints Day (1 November)
is a Catholic holiday and celebrated by eating chestnuts and drinking new wine
in Italy and Spain. The tradition was to play music at night for the dead and
to ring the bells at dawn. Other similar traditions in which chestnuts are
eaten include the Festival of St. Martin (11 November) throughout Europe, and
Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) in England.
At Christmas, chestnuts are
traditional food, and candied chestnuts (Marron Glace) were given as gifts by
the royalty. Chestnuts were one of the 13 foods offered baby Jesus, and on
Christmas Eve, chestnuts are traditionally left out for Jesus to taste while
people were in church. Chestnuts were considered a valuable gift for the holidays.
To early Christians,
chestnuts symbolized chastity, and were symbolic of hidden virtue and honesty. It is also considered a symbol of fertility.
In Greek mythology, before the stork, children were said to be found in the
hollow of an old chestnut tree. Artemis, the goddess of the forest, transformed
herself into a chestnut tree to escape the desires of Zeus, and the tree became
named chestnut because Artemis remained chaste because of this.
The French have a tradition
of putting chestnuts under the mattress to keep bad spirits from ‘pulling one’s
feet’ during the night.
In Japan, chestnuts were
eaten for good luck in battles in war and when fighting with disease.
In Georgia, when asking for
something that is very nice but hard to obtain, it is known as “asking for
The chestnut roaster on the
street on a cold winter day was like the ice cream vendor to children.
Throughout Europe, many
cities and towns derive their name from chestnut – La Castaneda, Castanero,
Castaneras, Castanar, Castano, San Martin de Castanar, Kastanis, Kastanea, and
on and on. In America, Chestnut Hill is a common place name, as is Chestnut
The legend on how the chestnut got its burr is told
that chestnuts used to hang on the tree like apples, and the chestnuts
themselves were tired of being preyed upon by squirrels. They went to the chestnut tree to ask what to
do, and he said ask the hedgehogs. The
hedgehogs invented a plan that the hedgehogs would roll themselves in a ball
around the chestnuts and this worked – the squirrels got poked by the spiny
burrs and learned not to try to eat the chestnuts any more.
Another legend is that the
chestnut is a divine gift – when you open the burr it is shaped like a cross.
The chestnut is said to have 3 nuts in a burr because they are to be shared –
one for the landlord, one for the peasant and one for God – to be replanted.