Q: What can you tell me about American and Chinese chestnut?

A: American chestnut (genus Castanea, species dentate ) is in the beech family. This tree was a plentiful species, providing 25 percent of the lumber in the eastern U.S. hardwood forests, until a fungal blight, introduced into North America in 1895, killed all the trees, except for a few sprouts, by 1930. We still see sprouts developing today, but seldom will the tree survive more than 10 years before the disease kills it.

The wood from this tall, straight tree was moderately high in strength and stiffness, glued and machined easily, and had high natural rot- and insect-resistance. Its grain and color looked like a combination of oak and ash, but without the ray fleck pattern. The nut itself was exceptional in
flavor.

In addition to American chestnut, there are 10 other species of chestnut in the world. These 10 include sweet or Spanish ( C. Vesca ), Chinese ( C. Mollissima ), Japanese ( C. Crenata ) and Turkish ( C. Sativa ). These "other chestnut" trees are small to medium sized; as a result, they cannot compete well in the natural forests and so have been unable to take the place of American chestnut. They do, however, seem to have moderate to good resistance to the blight. The nuts of these species, except for sweet chestnut, are inferior in quality and flavor.

The wood from these other chestnuts, except for sweet chestnut, is lower in density, with coarser grain and lower strength, and is without much natural decay resistance. Sweet chestnut, however, has been used in Europe since Roman times for structural members in buildings that are still standing today. All chestnuts do provide excellent appearing wood, albeit a little soft and weak, for furniture, cabinets and the like.

In the future, cross-breeding American chestnut with some of these other blight-resistant chestnut species, along with genetic engineering, offers hope for the return of this elegant tree and wonderful wood.

Special note: Horse-chestnut ( Aesculus hippocastanum ) is not a chestnut...not even close. The tree probably got its common name from the fruit's similarity in appearance to chestnuts. The horse-chestnut fruit is unfit for human consumption. The wood is also inferior to American chestnut. This tree is a relative of Ohio buckeye.

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