Sadly, most of us have never seen the majestic native American chestnut trees that grew to be 100 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter. This is because this mighty giant succumbed to the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) many years ago.
Chestnut trees are best known for their nutty fruit and wood. The loss of this tree was devastating to many.
The nuts were important for humans, livestock and wildlife. They provided starch (twice as much as potatoes), vitamins and minerals for the diet. Since nuts were abundant in the winter months, many people and wildlife could survive on this “bread tree.”
When / how did this all happen?
Infected trees were discovered in New York City around 1904. The disease spread rapidly, killing a chestnut tree in two years. This blight caused swollen wounds called cankers on the tree’s trunk and branches. Every section of the tree above a canker would die, eventually killing the tree but not the roots.
Having no resistance to this blight, the American chestnut tree was wiped out by the 1950s in the U.S. Even though the root of the tree produces sprouts of new trees, these are vulnerable to the disease and succumb within a short time.
Today in Mill Creek Park at Chestnut Hill you can still see the stumps of large trees that once grew there.
The good news is that a lot of interest, research and dedication have led to producing disease-resistant chestnut trees. Trees have been bred successfully with Asian trees to create chestnut trees not only disease-resistant but also 94 percent American chestnut.
Over the last five years the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has planted nearly 4,000 American chestnut seedlings that are potentially blight resistant. They have been bred with the Chinese chestnut tree, which is highly resistant to the blight. Together with The American Chestnut Foundation, the ODNR monitors and maintains the trees.
Most of our local markets have imported Italian chestnuts and a few stores are selling locally grown ones. My dad always cooked chestnuts for our family during the winter holidays. I still enjoy carrying on the tradition in our home — even after Christmas and through the month of January. Here is an easy recipe to make these tasty, sweet chestnuts:
Rinse and dry the chestnuts well.
With a sharp paring knife, carefully score the chestnuts on the belly side with an “X,” just piercing the inner skin and not the chestnut itself. Scoring is an important step, because chestnuts expand as they roast.
Optional: Soak the scored chestnuts in a bowl of hot water for 15 minutes to help with steaming. Drain and dry them well.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, unless you are using a pan on the stovetop. If cooking on top of the stove use a cast iron pan and a lid.
Oven: Cook chestnuts on a lined baking sheet or perforated aluminum pan. Shake baking sheet halfway through cooking. Depending on your oven, you may need to flip the chestnuts so they cook evenly. (Approximately 25 to 30 minutes).
Pan: Cover pan with lid. Roast over a medium-low flame, shaking pan often. (Approximately 10 to 15 minutes).
Traditionally in Italy, street vendors roast chestnuts over a wood-burning roaster, which gives them a lovely smoky taste. You can use a perforated pan, cook over the hot ashes, and enjoy these wonderful “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” too.
For more information on American chestnut trees, visit: http://go.osu.edu/chestnuts.
Belfast is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Mahoning County.