Chestnuts: Growing the American Chestnut Tree

Wiped out by blight in the early 20th century, resistant hybrids of the American chestnut tree are making a comeback. Their rapid growth and productivity make them an excellent addition to any homestead.

| February/March 2010

The majestic American chestnut tree was once common throughout the forests of eastern North America, providing sweet, meaty chestnuts for humans and wildlife. A fungus first noted in the United States in 1904 quickly wiped out this native species, but fortunately we can still grow our own chestnuts today because the American chestnut’s Chinese cousin is resistant to the blight that devastated the American species.

I planted my chestnut trees here in New Paltz, N.Y., in 1997. I had a relatively small area to devote to chestnuts, and, except for one tree, I chose grafted hybrid varieties that produce large nuts, are resistant to chestnut blight, and are cold-hardy (because the temperature here in New York’s Hudson Valley can plummet to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit). The varieties I planted were ‘Bisalta #3,’ ‘Colossal,’ ‘Eaton,’ ‘Marigoule’ and ‘Mossberg.’

Given suitable soil and site conditions, Chinese chestnuts and their hybrids grow quickly and start to bear at a young age — typically about their fourth year. My largest and quickest-to-bear tree, now 12 years old, was actually grown by planting a Chinese chestnut. The tree has both a height and spread of about 20 feet, and it yields more than half a bushel of chestnuts every season. It’s a beauty, as chestnut trees generally are, with nice form and leaves that retain a fresh glossiness before turning a rich, golden brown in autumn. Chestnut trees can be “luscious landscaping” for any yard, as long as they’re not planted where the sharp burrs that cover the nuts could cause problems when they drop.

Planning and Early Care

Chestnut trees need abundant sunlight (six or more hours of direct summer sun) and fertile, well-drained and slightly acidic soil. Generally, plan on giving a chestnut tree about 40 feet of room in all directions. If you’re in a rush for large harvests, plant at half that distance and remove every other tree when they start to crowd each other. You must plant two trees to provide the necessary cross-pollination, so, unless your neighbor has a tree that’s a seedling or is of a different variety, always plant two different varieties. Chestnuts are primarily wind-pollinated, so the two or more pollenizers need to be within about 200 feet of each other.

Chestnut trees require little care beyond their formative stage. While they’re young, ensure adequate branch spacing by training the trees to follow what’s known as the modified central leader form. This promotes growth of a single, upright main stem by pinching back, bending down, or cutting off any competitors for that top position. Select major scaffold limbs growing off the main stem, spacing them a foot or more apart up along the central leader. Scaffold limbs should originate from a spiral arrangement as much as possible so that no limb is directly above the one below it. Start the lowest scaffold limb high enough that you can mow under the tree. After the central leader reaches 6 to 8 feet in height, cut it back to a side branch to allow subsequent tree growth to spread wide. Chinese chestnut trees have naturally good form, so not much pruning is needed to get the growth described here.

Chestnut Blight

Chestnut blight, a fungus that originated in Asia, was first noted in the United States in 1904 at the New York Zoological Garden. Within 50 years, the disease had infected almost all American chestnut trees.

2/27/2010 12:48:13 PM

Paul Davies Is there an international shipping issue? If not, just go on line, do a search, and sign up for some catalogs. Unfortunately all the catalogs that I received this year were sold out on the Chestnut trees. I would like to get the ones with the heart shaped nuts though.

Paul Davies_3
2/27/2010 2:45:38 AM

I have planted a couple of chestnuts where I live in Grahamstown , S.Africa. They are growing well but are the same variety. Does anyone know where I can get Chinese Chestnut trees in S.Africa. Paul Davies

Suzanne Horvath
2/26/2010 12:32:22 PM

About 10 yrs ago I planted 2 chestnut trees because I couldn't find chestnuts in the supermarket in my area, One was a Chinese Hybrid and one an American chestnut. They cover my whole front yard! I really need to prune drastically soon. I get approx. 60-75 lbs of chestnuts per tree per year. I sell them to an organic healthfood store (I don't spray or otherwise treat the trees). It took a couple of years to get people to buy them - most aren't familiar with chestnuts and think they are like regular tree nuts. Chestnuts are really more like a fruit, very high in moisture. My second tree (the American) gets the weevils, so I have stopped trying to sell the fruit from that tree. The first tree doesn't have this problem at all, never has, and produces really large chestnuts - so I just sell those now. The one thing not mentioned in the article is the flowers known as catkins. They fall off prior to the pods being set. The smell is divine! The whole yard smells like roasting chestnuts. They look like giant pipe cleaners. They are pale on the tree, but when they drop they turn dark in a couple of days. I use them as mulch. Works great and smells good. You can also compost the empty burrs(pods) if you don't use them to discourage four-legged visitors. Believe me, you will have a lot to use from these trees. Chestnut wood is a hardwood, so if you prune, save the wood and use it. Makes great firewood, material for crafts etc. A Very Useful Tree!

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