Chestnuts: not just for the holidays


     Baby, it’s cold outside, and Jack Frost is nipping at your nose. But, do you have chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Are you planning on sitting at the fireplace where you’ll watch the chestnuts pop… pop, pop, pop? Christmas carols remind us of a nostalgic time when chestnuts were a part of every day life in America, until suddenly they weren’t.

     Chestnuts are one of the oldest traditional foods in America. Up until the 1800s, chestnut trees were the most common species in the eastern hardwood forests, making up a quarter of all the trees. They provided food for human and wildlife consumption, along with quality lumber.

     Unfortunately, the American chestnut was virtually wiped out by an imported bark fungus, first identified in 1904. During the next forty years over 3.5 billion trees succumbed to the blight.

     Chestnut blight kills by girdling the trunk with cankers that grow inward and cut off the tree’s food supply. The blight lives harmlessly in the bark of other trees, such as oaks, attacking  young chestnut seedlings before they can mature.

     Though the trees have been gone from the forest canopies of the U.S. for nearly 100 years, efforts to find a cure for the disease continue.  Some scientists are crossing American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts, which are resistant to the blight, and then backcrossing the hybrids with pure American trees. Others are using DNA sequencing, or infecting trees with different viruses to kill the blight.

     Despite the lack of home-grown chestnuts, Americans can still get this seasonal treat from abroad. The United States imports 400 million pounds of Chinese chestnuts per year, most coming from Italy and Portugal. China is the world leader in chestnut production, growing some 2 million tons.

     The U.S. produces less than 1 percent of the total world production on just under 4000 acres. Here, chestnuts are grown mainly in Michigan, Florida, California, Oregon, and Virginia.

     The market for chestnuts is huge and growing, with demand doubling every ten years since 1980.  Small chestnut groves are being planted throughout Iowa. Producers can sell their chestnuts directly to the Prairie Grove Chestnut Cooperative in Columbus Junction, or find value added options such as farmers markets, specialty grocers, ethnic markets, seasonal food suppliers, or mail-order businesses.

     Pure Chinese chestnuts are a good choice for Iowa growers living in the southern half of the state.  In the upper part of the state, particularly the Northeast quarter, producers should plant blight resistant hybrids of Chinese and American chestnuts. Note that nut size varies between strains, so care should be taken to choose for the larger sizes. Chestnuts retail for 2 to 5 dollars per pound, with prices as high as 16 dollars per pound for organic nuts.

     Although chestnuts are consumed as a fresh food with a relatively short shelf life, efforts are being made to extend the market season with peeled and frozen products. Having them available year-round might make Christmas in July worth celebrating!

     For more information on planting chestnut trees, contact the Jones Soil & Water Conservation District at 319-462-3517 ext. 3 or stop by the office at 300 Chamber Dr., Anamosa.


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