This is National Chestnut Week, and I have a newfound enthusiasm for chestnuts. I was once like you, thinking the nuts existed only in song. My first exposure to a real live chestnut was right here in Lawrence a few years ago, and I was soon to learn of the local chestnut orchard.
I asked the same question that I have heard repeated time after time when I mention chestnuts: "Didn't all the chestnut trees die a hundred years ago?"
Chestnut blight killed an estimated 3.5 billion American chestnut trees between 1910 and 1950, but a few remain. In the eastern United States, within the native range of the tree, the disease persists. Since chestnut blight only kills trees back to the ground, ancient root systems of chestnut trees send up sprouts, only for those sprouts to become reinfected before they flower or fruit. Eventually the root systems starve without supporting topgrowth.
Solitary American chestnut trees can exist in this area (and some do) because we are outside of the native range of the tree. These isolated trees are not resistant to chestnut blight and could still contract the disease if exposed.
Chestnut orchards and the chestnuts you will find at the store are typically Chinese chestnuts - close cousins to the American variety, or hybrids of the two varieties. The nuts are just as tasty and are sometimes referred to as the "un-nut" because they contain less fat than walnuts, pecans and other more popular nuts. They also contain vitamin C and can be ground into gluten-free chestnut flour.
The nuts of both the American and Chinese varieties most closely resemble a hazelnut or filbert in size, color and shape, but the nutmeats are sweeter.
The nearly extinct American variety of chestnut is valued for more than its nuts. The wood was considered one of the finest lumbers, used by early settlers for furniture and houses and wood flooring. Native Americans in the east used the trees for canoes. People also used tannins from the tree to cure or "tan" leather. The American chestnut comprised an estimated 25 percent of the eastern forests.
The idea that chestnut blight will ever be eradicated from the United States is unlikely, but someday we may have a blight-resistant American chestnut. Multiple universities breed and study chestnuts, and there are organizations devoted to restoring the American chestnut to the forest. Some researchers estimate that we could see American chestnuts surviving in the forest as soon as 2012.
In the meantime, Chinese chestnuts are gaining in economic importance. More chestnuts are being produced, and more consumers are becoming aware of them. If you have never tasted a chestnut, try them this year. Roast the nuts over an open fire, just like the song says, or try something different. A simple Internet search of chestnut recipes brings up everything from chestnut cheesecake to cream of chestnut soup.
The next time someone mentions chestnuts, you can sing a song of a legend reborn.