Chestnuts Return to America

How easy it is to take things for granted. This article is a great example of how even the small things mean something. I had no idea Chestnuts were that in trouble, and even less that we import them.

“I think we got a rainstorm coming in,” Peggy Paul said, pointing to the ominous band of clouds rolling our way on a blustery, mid-November day. She led me into the shelter of her nearby orchard as icy rain began to tick against the dry leaves and bristled burrs that clung to some 500 chestnut trees.

As my eyes adjusted to the light under that nearly closed canopy, I whispered the word “beautiful.” Those trees both protected us from the rain and reminded me–with hundreds of trunks giving way to a tangle of interlocking branches–of an enchanted forest far more than a commercial orchard.

Enchanted or not, a chestnut forest is a rare sight. That’s because, as a recent New York Times article put it, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) “had a worse 20th century than the British Empire, the ice-delivery trade or rhyming poetry.”

Once a stately member of the Eastern hardwood forest ecosystem, up to 4 billion American chestnut trees fell victim to a blight during the 1930s and 1940s, virtually scouring the species from its native habitat. That’s why the majority of Americans today experience the chestnut via imported and frequently inferior Chinese chestnuts, or vicariously through that 1946 nostalgia-laden chestnut of a ballad, “The Christmas Song,” in which Nat King Cole crooned about chestnuts roasting over an open fire.

“These are Colossal chestnuts,” Paul said of the stately trees that surrounded us. “This is a strain of chestnut that has been crossed with a domestic nut and a Chinese chestnut. They’re blight-free chestnuts.”

With the relatively recent development of disease-resistant stock, new strains of chestnuts are being introduced into the tree’s historic habitat, as well as into entirely new territory, like Peggy and Jim Paul’s commercial orchard near Nampa.

“I, along with a lot of growers within the Northwest and the Midwest, am trying to bring chestnut trees back to the United States,” said Paul.

Paul knows of one other commercial chestnut grower near Horseshoe Bend, about 20 growers in Oregon, 15 in Washington and another 50 in Missouri and Illinois.

For the rest of the article, visit http://www.nwfoodnews.com/2011/12/16/chestnuts-return-to-america/