Chestnut Trees

Published January 31, 2019
Big chestnut tree in agriculture landscape

Chestnut trees are legendary specimens in the world of dendrology. Often confused with horsechestnuts and water chestnuts, the tree hails from the genus Castanea and is very hard to miss given its massive size. Chestnut trees can grow to heights that exceed 100 feet. While its size may not be appropriate for the average backyard, the tree's fruit is extremely popular with nut lovers around the world.

Appearance of the Tree

The Chestnut tree played a pivotal role in the lives of Native Americans during the United States' infancy. Thanks to the following noteworthy characteristics, the tree is as easily identified today as it was centuries ago:

  • Leaves: The tree's leaves are ovate with sharp, spear-like points. Each leaf measures about five inches long and two inches wide. In addition, they have widely-spaced teeth and are dark green on the top and light green on the underside. In the fall, the leaves turn bright yellow, gold and brown before dropping.
Chestnut tree leaves
  • Flowers: Chestnut flower bloom in late spring and appear as long catkins. The catkins have a strong, sweet odor that some people find overwhelming. The flowers only remain on the tree until the fruit begins to form.
Chestnut tree flowers blossoming
  • Fruit: The tree's fruit is what is commonly referred to as the chestnut. It is covered with a brown husk and hair-like spines which remain until the fruit ripens and splits open. The size and flavor of the nut vary depending on the type of tree. Horsechestnuts have medicinal value.
Chestnut fruit on tree
  • Bark: The bark of the Chestnut tree is very distinctive. In its youth, the tree features a smooth red-brown to grey colored bark depending on tree type. However, as the tree matures the bark gets thick and deeply furrowed. What's more, the furrows often twist around the tree making it appear as if someone tied up the tree with long twisted cables.
Large old chestnut tree trunk bark

Chestnut Tree Types

Nothing tastes better on a frigid winter day than piping hot roasted chestnuts. In the United States getting your hands on warm chestnuts used to be a breeze. However, in 1904 a huge blight wiped out the American version of the tree and now the species is being repopulated by cross-breeding it with the following Chestnut types:

  • Chinese Chestnut: This specimen thrives in hot, dry climates and can grow to heights topping 50 feet. The chestnuts are not as sweet as the American version but are used in a number of savory dishes. The slow-growing Chestnut is also used as a shade tree thanks to its expansive leaf canopy.
Chinese Chestnut trees on a slope
  • Dwarf Chestnut: Known for its small yellow flowers, the tree grows quickly, but not very tall. The Dwarf Chestnut tops out at about 15 feet. Its nuts are also small compared to its cousins. The Dwarf Chestnut is also partial to water and needs plenty of rain to prosper.
  • Japanese Chestnut: Native to Japan, this Chestnut tree also thrives in Florida. The Japanese Chestnut is not well-known for its nuts, as the tree's fruit has an unpleasant taste. The tree grows to about 30 feet and is primarily used to propagate with other Chestnut tree types.

As for the American Chestnut, it can soar to 115 feet or higher. Its nuts are sweet and its leaves can grow up to 10 inches long. The fast-growing species loses it leaves in the winter and cannot survive extreme cold.

Where the Chestnut Grows

Chestnut trees can be found throughout the world, though because of intense work to repopulate the American version, the United States has the largest number of burgeoning trees.

The tree is especially popular in:

  • Maine
  • Tennessee
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Kentucky
  • Pennsylvania
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas

Chestnut trees thrive in both semi-dry and damp soil. It also prefers full sunlight and acidic soil.

Popular Uses

Most people recognize the Chestnut tree by its fruit which can be roasted, dried, baked and boiled. The tasty nuts are cholesterol and gluten-free and contain very little fat. In addition, the nuts are packed with Vitamin C.

Some popular chestnut food products include:

  • Chestnut flour
  • Pudding
  • Stuffing
  • Soup
  • Ice cream
  • Sauces
  • Puree
  • Cakes
Roasting chestnuts in oven

Another popular use for Chestnuts is wood products. The tree's timber is light brown in color and similar to Oak wood in that it is strong yet malleable.

The wood is often used to create:

  • Furniture
  • Musical Instruments
  • Crates
  • Caskets
  • Shingles
  • Siding
  • Fence posts
  • Barrels
  • Cabinets

In addition, in some parts of the world, Chestnut wood is burned and used as a fuel source.

The Many Looks of the Chestnut Tree

Conkers on a Horse Chestnut Tree
Chestnut tree in early fall
Roasting chestnuts in pan
Chestnut branch in spring
Group of Chestnut trees
View into Big Chestnut Tree

Interesting Facts

Chestnut trees can save you a lot of money if you enjoy eating the fruit. There's nothing quite like harvesting the nuts from your own backyard. When you do, look for glossy, firm nuts that feel heavy. Lighter nuts are a sign of age and drying.

You don't have to plant a yard full of Chestnut trees to enjoy some of the interesting facts that relate to the species, such as:

  • Chestnut trees are commonly found in large parks and other public green spaces where they house myriads of woodland creatures, especially birds and squirrels.
  • In the book Howards End, one of the main characters describes a custom followed by superstitious farmers who placed pigs' teeth in the bark of Chestnut trees. The farmers would then pull off pieces of the bark and chew on them to ease toothaches.
  • The Chestnut tree is also paid homage to in George Orwell's novel 1984 and in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Village Blacksmith."
Chestnut tree in winter

Chestnut Diseases

Chestnut blight is the infamous fungal disease that wiped out nearly the entire population of American Chestnut trees in 1904. The disease is believed to have entered the country via Japanese and Chinese Chestnut trees that were being imported to the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City. The blight enters the Chestnut tree and can kill it by destroying its vascular system. Today, the serious disease can be cured if caught early.

Unfortunately, Chestnut blight is not the only disease that affects the species. Other fungus-related diseases that attack the Chestnut tree include:

  • Root Rot: Caused by excessive exposure to moisture, root rot can infect leaves and force them to drop prematurely. Infected Chestnut trees also develop dark spots on the bark.
  • Powdery Mildew: This common Chestnut tree disease presents itself as small, white spots that grow as the infection spreads. The mildew is grayish-white and coats the tree's leaves leading to growth issues.
Large chestnut tree in autumn

Chestnut Care

While they may appear large and intimidating, Chestnut trees are relatively easy to grow. They are low maintenance and don't require a lot of specialized care. However, it is a good idea to the follow these simple tips if you want your Chestnut to prosper on your property:

  • The soil should be fertile and have good drainage to avoid root rot.
  • Space the trees at least 20 feet apart from each other as they need room to grow.
  • Do not plant the large trees under power lines.
  • Save planting until spring as excessive cold can kill young trees.
  • Select an area on your property that receives full sunlight.
  • Add some compost to the base of the tree to avoid weeds.
  • Water the tree on a regular basis, but don't allow it to sit in standing water.
  • To produce a large crop of chestnuts, fertilize the tree during its first growing season.

Chestnut Trees for Home Landscping

You can include chestnut trees in your landscaping plans and harvest the delicious nuts to roast on an open fire, just like the Christmas song. In addition, chestnuts make a great food source for squirrels and other animals.

Chestnut Trees