25 December 2008

Chestnut Trees Return

A familiar Christmas song begins with Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose and ends with Merry Christmas to you.

It is thought that Native Americans were eating chestnuts (Castenea sativa) long before Europeans brought their trees to the new world. Michael Dolan, chestnut grower in WA said entire civilizations were built around chestnut forests in Europe.

A fungal disease blight in 1904 destroyed four billion chestnut trees in the U.S. by 1940. If you buy chestnuts in a store now they probably came from Japan, China, Spain or Italy. The canned ones called marrons usually come from France. Dolan’s company, Burnt Ridge Nursery, sells Washington grown trees and nuts.

A cousin of oak and beech trees, North American native chestnuts were grown for their wood as well as the starchy nuts. The rot resistant wood was used as logs for cabins, furniture, fence posts and rails, telegraph poles and shake roofs.

Americans want chestnuts. In 2007, we imported 4,056 metric tons of chestnuts in the shell from Europe: $10 million worth.

Michigan’s Department of Agriculture urges consumers to eat chestnuts to build the industry. The niche product is now grown on 200 Michigan farms.

One of the big culinary draws of chestnuts is that the gluten free flour is low fat and low calorie. Chestnut flour is the reason the tree is called the bread tree.

Dolan said he prefers them roasted crunchy on top of the stove in a medium-hot skillet. There is a cookbook on their website, burntridgenursery.com, with recipes.

Culinary uses include: Chestnut filling for cake, chestnuts and chocolate filled cream puffs, candied or soaked in liquor, and made into a mousse. Plus, chestnuts as a side dish, chestnut dressing, chestnut soup or stuffed into winter squash. See http://www.chestnutsonline.com/ for more recipes.

Dolan said, We have 70-tree-varieties at Burnt Ridge Nursery. You need a cross pollinator to get nuts and Skioka is a good pollinator with sweet, easy-to-peel nuts that are six times the size of the American native.

Dolan’s tips for growing chestnut trees in Oklahoma: They like full sun, will adapt to any type of soil, and do best on a well-drained site. All the varieties they sell are blight resistant. Plant chestnut trees where the prickly covering on the nuts will not cause a problem.

The Ozark native species is a Cinkapin shrub chestnut and it carries the blight, Dolan said. It is a dwarf with nuts the size of peas.

Most chestnuts grow three times as fast as an oak, said Dolan. The year they are transplanted they will grow a foot, the next two years they will grow at least 3-feet each year, then the next year they will bear.

Chestnut trees provide food for jays, squirrels, elk, wild turkey, some moths and butterflies. They reliably produce nuts every year. The nuts are safe from wildlife until they ripen because of their hard prickly shell that splits open to release mature nuts.

Dolan has been growing chestnuts organically for 29-years. They fertilize with composted chicken manure in the spring and water in droughts. No spraying is necessary.

Burnt Ridge Nursery in WA offers 22 varieties, some of which are crosses with the blight resistant Asian chestnuts. Seedling trees are $3.50 and grafted stock is $20 per tree. Dolan said American chestnut trees are $5 each. www.burntridgenursery.com and 360-985-2873.

The University of Idaho seedling program sells American Chestnut Superstock saplings Castanea dentata, 5 for $10 at http://seedlings.uidaho.com/ and 208-885-3888.

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