Growing Chinese Chestnuts in Missouri
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Ken Hunt, Michael Gold, William Reid and Michele Warmund
Chinese chestnut is an emerging new tree crop for Missouri and the Midwest. The Chinese chestnut tree is a spreading, medium-sized tree with glossy dark leaves bearing large crops of nutritious nuts. Nuts are borne inside spiny burs that split open when nuts are ripe. Each bur contains one to three shiny, dark brown nuts. Nuts are baked or boiled to help remove the leathery shell and papery seed coat to reveal a creamy colored meat. Chestnuts are a healthy, low-fat food ingredient that can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes — from soups, to poultry stuffing, to pancakes, muffins and pastries (using chestnut flour). Historically, demand for chestnuts in the United States has been highest in ethnic markets (Italian and Asian) but as Americans search for novel and healthy food products, chestnut should find wider acceptance.
This guide explains the basics of establishing and managing a Chinese chestnut orchard. Topics include site and water requirements, updated cultivar selections, methods for establishing orchards, updated fertilization information, harvesting and storage information. New sections include highlights from the Center's nationwide chestnut market analysis, a listing of value-added products that can be made with chestnuts and a list of retail nurseries offering recommended cultivars.
Chinese chestnut is a medium-sized tree with spreading habit and has attractive white catkins in late May and early June.
Three species of chestnut provide the basis for world-wide chestnut production
- Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima)
- European chestnut (C. sativa)
- Japanese chestnut (C. crenata).
Chinese chestnuts are a medium-sized (40 feet) tree often multi-branched and wide spreading. With both good cold hardiness (-20 F) and adequate tolerance to chestnut blight, Chinese chestnut is the best adapted chestnut for Missouri and surrounding states. The European chestnut is a larger tree (65 feet), wide spreading and generally too blight susceptible to grow east of the Rockies and is not as cold hardy as the Chinese chestnut. Most chestnuts seen in grocery store chains are imported European chestnuts, primarily imported from Italy. The Japanese chestnut is a small to medium-sized tree (35 feet) but lacks the blight tolerance and winter hardiness of the Chinese chestnut. European and Japanese chestnuts are grown commercially in West Coast states where chestnut blight is not as pervasive and the climate milder. Chestnut species hybridize freely and many hybrids have been produced.
A dehiscing burr of the "Qing" cultivar. The nut in the middle position is flattened on two sides.
Chinese chestnut seedlings are widely available in nurseries across the Midwest. Although these trees provide adequate nut production for home use, seedlings often produce small nuts of mediocre quality. Establishing an orchard of chestnuts with seedling trees will make nut harvest overly complicated. Each tree in the orchard will ripen at a different time making quick and efficient harvest difficult. Grafted trees of proven cultivars provide more uniform ripening, higher nut quality, larger nut size, and more consistent yields. The evaluation of chestnut cultivars for the Midwest is in its early stages. University trials in Missouri have been established and are providing preliminary data. Table 1 lists a few Chinese chestnut cultivars that have shown excellent potential for nut production in Missouri.
Methods for establishing Chinese chestnut trees
Chinese chestnuts can be established by planting grafted trees, by planting seedling trees then field grafting one to two years later, or by planting nuts then field grafting two to three years later. Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages.
Chestnuts ready for roasting on an open fire.