Local couple raise hybrid chestnut trees as a hobby as scientists try to bring back the American chestnut

Published 1:55 am Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Russell Foster and his wife, Mae, say that if you plant a few chestnut trees in your backyard and the economy collapses, you and your family will never starve to death.

Or, remember the song, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping on your nose…”

Unfortunately, most folks born in the late 1940s and 1950s, and since then, have never seen a chestnut tree or a chestnut, at least not an American chestnut. Chestnuts found in grocery stores since the 1950s have been Chinese chestnuts, except for those who are lucky enough to live near a store supplied by American chestnut enthusiasts such as the Fosters, whose trees are actuallyhybrids.

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That’s because, although the American chestnut tree once numbered one of every five hardwood trees in Eastern United States woodlands, by the mid-1950s they were all gone, destroyed by an Asian fungus blight that crept into the United States at the turn of the last century, most likely coming off a ship docked at a U.S. port.

The Fosters, who live on Inside Road, raise a hybrid variety that is half-American chestnut and half-Chinese, which is resistant to the blight. The grafted variety does not grow as tall as the American chestnut, but is sturdy and bears the fruit heavily.

They market some in the local Claiborne Hill supermarket, and consume the rest. Mae Foster says you can grind them into a flour with which to bake tasty treats, like chestnut banana bread.

“There are literally thousands of recipes for them on the Internet,” she says. “You can even make candy out of them.”

Russell Foster got interested in the chestnut tree from a friend while working at Stennis. He bought his small trees, which cost about $12 each at the time, from a nursery in Florida that specializes in them.

Another good point about the chestnut is that after you plant the trees, you start getting fruit in about three years. Plant a pecan and you might die before the tree bears. Pecans can take 10 to 20 years to begin bearing heavily.

In fact, the pecan wasn’t nearly as popular in the early 20th Century as it is now because chestnuts were then so plentiful.

The American chestnut tree once grew in profusion in Eastern forests from Maine to the Mississippi River. An estimated 4 billion chestnut trees once grew east of the Mississippi River and were a main food source for deer, turkeys, raccoons, squirrels and, of course, the American Indian, which used them in a variety of forms, including as flour.

“You can even eat them raw,” says Russell Foster, “although they don’t agree with some people, although I have never had any problem eating them raw. I love them that way.”

Foster also said the trees are low-maintenance, unlike the pecan.

“All you have to do is fertilize them every two or three years lightly, cut the sprouts away and make sure no vines invade the tree. You must also plant them in a well-drained area. They don’t like wet feet. They are, after all, a hardwood,” he said.

The American chestnut was once called the “cradle-to-grave” tree by American pioneers. They built their houses from it, their furniture, and when they died, they were buried in a chestnut coffin.

Rural folks used to gather the fruit every year in the Fall, just before Christmas, and sell the big shiny dark brown nuts to city folks right before Christmas, hence, the Christmas tradition, before they disappeared, of roasting chestnuts on an open fire.

You have to remove the prickly pod, then peel off a wooden skin to get at the meat.

Recently, there have been efforts to reintroduce the American chestnut tree back into Eastern forests. Scientist have grafted an American chestnut to a Chinese variety, and they have done what is called a back-cross so that the Chinese variety, which is more squatty, does not overwhelm the American variety’s characteristics and incorporates the Chinese variety’s blight resistant characteristic.

It makes a tree that is 15/16ths American and 1/16th Chinese and is blight resistant.

A full, mature American chestnut reaches about 80 feet into the air, and may not have branches for as high as 50 feet. It was once known as the “Redwood of the Eastern Forest” and was highly prized not only for its fruit, but also for its timber production.

After the chestnut tree disappeared in the 1950s, it was called the “greatest ecological disaster” in American history.

Scientists call it a keystone species and are trying to reintroduce it.

It is estimated that by the end of the 1950s nearly 4 billion trees had been destroyed by the blight.

For the last 26 years, The American Chestnut Foundation has been breeding to develop a blight resistant tree that still looks like the original American chestnut.

Early this year, tree experts planted seedlings in three national forests in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Researchers kept the sites secret because the trees are considered valuable and could possibly be stolen.

Scientists planted 1,200, approximately 500 blight resistant. An additional 1,200 will be planted next year.

A few trees can still be seen in the Appalachian mountains, but they are only echoes of the giants that used to stand throughout the Eastern forest. The trees not only fed the wild animals, but man and his livestock and the Indians.

When the blight wiped out the tree, many Appalachian families were left without an important food and a source of income. Many harvested the nuts to sell during the Christmas holidays. Families fattened their hogs on the nuts, too.

The tree’s disappearance took a dramatic toll on wildlife. As it disappeared, the number of species that depended on the meaty nut dramatically declined, some even disappearing.

It was the main food source for wildlife in the Eastern U.S. forests.

In 1983 a group of concerned scientists formed the TACF and began the long process of developing a blight-resistant variety and re-introducing it into the forests.

It will take another generation before the project is completed, but one day the mighty chestnut tree may grow wild and free again in the Eastern U.S. forests, from Maine to Mississippi.

“It is really an interesting tree, and so sad what happened to it. But each American can help by planting a chestnut tree or two in their yard,” says Foster.

Mae Foster says their variety is called Dunstan and can be purchased from the Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Florida.

She said the nut is sized as small, medium, large and jumbo, and can be roasted, boiled or dried. The boiled nuts can be candied or mashed to make soup or cookies.

The dried nuts can be frozen and re-hydrated by boiling or may be ground into flour. Chestnuts are gluten-free. Recipes are available on the Internet from several sources including a 200-year-old Italian recipe book.

Sites include: http://italianfood.about.com/od/biscottietc/r/blr0126.htm and http://www.chestnuthilltreefarm.com/.