The Amazing Allegheny Chinquapin
The Amazing Allegheny Chinquapin
Allegheny chinquapin (or chinkapin, depending on how you want to spell it) is a species (Castanea pumila) of small chestnut that is native to the eastern half of the United States, including the South. The Allegheny chinquapin is the smaller cousin of the American chestnut. The American chestnut was almost entirely eliminated in by a blight that was imported to North America in the early 1900’s (as an aside, there are a few scattered American chestnuts left, and a grove was found at a state park in Georgia in 2006). Other small species of chinquapin exist in the wild, including the Ozark chinquapin that is currently disappearing from the Ozarks.
The fungal blight that all but eliminated the American chestnut also causes fatalities among the native chinquapin population, though to a slightly lesser degree. There are fewer native chinquapins in the wild than in the past due to disturbance of native habitat and the blight.
The chinquapin nuts themselves are much smaller than either the American or Chinese chestnuts. They are produced in late summer to early fall in spiny burs that split open when ripe. They have a sweeter flavor than their larger relatives and are usually considered more palatable. The nuts are produced late summer in the South. Native Americans consumed the nuts for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. In the early 1600s, American colonists noticed the use of the chinquapin by Native Americans and began using the nuts in the same manner.
The Allegheny chinquapin has one advantage over the fungal blight: it sprouts numerous “suckers” from the roots if the top dies. Even healthy trees will spread by root suckers. The tree is heat and drought tolerant once established. Allow the tree to dry out between watering but keep tree from experiencing extented dry spells while the nuts are being produced.
Chinquapin wood is strong and durable. It was historically used for fence posts and fuel. The chinquapins are a favorite food for wildlife where they are available. The trees themselves barely grow above 20 feet, even on the most ideal site.
Site selection and soil:
Chinquapin trees need well-drained, organic matter-rich soil. The soil should be neutral to slightly acidic. They need either full or parital sun – they can tolerate being in the shade of larger trees. Chinquapin trees should be planted about 20’ apart. Keep the area around young chinquapin trees as weed free as possible the first year or two after planting. The trees benefit from a mulch made of organic matter.
Chinquapin trees produce female flowers and pollen on male catkins in spring that blows to the female flowers on other chinquapin trees. It is best to plant at least two trees to ensure a good crop of nuts.
Chinquapin trees will begin producing nuts when they are 5-10 years of age. Healthy trees will continue producing for decades. The chinquapin nuts will ripen and fall in early summer or autumn.
Chinquapin trees should not require much fertilization, besides applications of organic matter in spring and summer. If growth seems to slow down, fertilize with a few cups of 10-10-10 fertilizer around the base of the tree.
Chinquapin trees do not need annual pruning. They will be bushy while young, so if that is an aesthetic issue, the lower branches can be pruned off. As the tree grows, the lower branches will naturally die and fall off. Prune off any dead branches that do not fall.
Pests and diseases:
Root rot – Chinquapin trees planted in wet, poorly drained soils will experience fungal root rots.
Chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) is the most common disease that impacts chinquapin trees. The blight is a fungal disease that enters through wounds – either natural or man-made – on the tree. It grows beneath the bark and spreads throughout the tree, causing cankers and producing toxins. The entire tree is eventually killed, usually by a canker girdling the tree. There is no treatment for blight, though conservation efforts and breeding of resistant stock are ongoing. The Allegheny chinquapin is more resistant to it than the American chestnut.
Production: Enjoying your harvest
Chinquapins are great for fresh eating, or they can be used in any recipe that calls for chestnuts. Roasted chinquapins are a tasty, almost chocolate-flavored treat.