What Kind of Chestnut Trees Should I Plant for Production of Nuts for Human or Wildlife Food?
The American chestnut tree was a large, stately tree of the Appalachian Mountains. It was also found in surrounding states and in Canada on the north side of Lake Erie. A disease called chestnut blight was accidentally introduced from Asia that destroyed the American chestnut tree reducing it to small sucker sprouts that die before the production of nuts.
To obtain nuts, it is best not to grow the American chestnut tree as they will, sooner or later, get chestnut blight and die. The older and bigger they get, the greater expense to remove them.
The nuts of most chestnuts species are relative similar. They mostly vary in size from dime-sized chinquapins to enormous European hybrids. Wildlife love them all (and the tree, too) but some research indicates turkeys like to eat smaller nuts. Culinary chestnuts are usually larger for cooking and presentation.
Figure 1. Various chestnuts from different kinds of trees. Left to right: two small chestnuts that are actually the chinquapin chestnut, a small bushy chestnut tree not normally grown for culinary nuts (wildlife, yes); four American chestnuts; the quarter; three Chinese chestnuts; and finally two EuropeanXJapanese hybrid chestnuts. All of these were grown in Michigan and the trees are available for planting. Remember, inside each nut is a golden kernel of sweet chestnut wrapped in a papery tissue called the pellicle. The kernel is usually 25 percent smaller than the outside diameter of the nut.
Below, you will find the various options to consider if you want a small planting of “backyard” chestnuts. Please read all options as it starts from the easiest to find to the more difficult to find trees.
Option 1: Plant Chinese chestnut seedling trees as these are resistant to the chestnut killing disease called chestnut blight. These are smallish, crabapple-sized trees that will generally flower and set some nuts within 8 to 15 years. The nuts are usually tasty chestnuts for humans and wildlife. Insects will still be a problem, such as potato leaf hoppers and Japanese beetles will still be a problem.
Strengths and weaknesses of this option: With this planting option, you don’t need to worry about chestnut blight or pollination. However, the nature of their seedling genetics (grown from seed) makes these trees unpredictable in time of flowering and amount of nuts produced. To remedy this, plant at least 3 or more trees with emphasis on the “more.” The more you plant, the greater the chance that a tree or two will bloom earlier, perhaps in as short a time as 5 years or so. Most should be in bloom within 10 years. This is a fun option to have but you must know that the trees (seedlings) are not high quality, you don’t know what you are getting or when you will get nuts, so try to find as cheap tree as possible.
Option 2: Plant Chinese chestnut grafted cultivars. This is a better option than option 1, but more expensive and harder to find the trees. These trees are still smallish chestnut trees and blight resistant as in Option 1, above, but they will be more predictable. They should flower within 3-5 years and they could be in larger production within 5 or 6 years. You need 2 cultivars for pollination. Each cultivar will be predictable and should grow similarly. Typical cultivars are ‘Sleeping Giant’, ‘Benton Harbor’, ‘Qing’, ‘Peach’, and ‘Eaton’ or ‘Eaton River’.
Strength and weaknesses of this option: Faster time to production and higher production than Option 1. This comes at a cost as a grafted cultivar is more expensive than a seedling tree and harder to find at nurseries. The grafted portion adds quality as the graft is a selection (like apple or grape cultivars). If the graft is lost due to weather or animal predation, the rootstock should remain alive , send up sprouts and the sprouts should continue to grow just fine for years, so you still have a tree (but not the cultivar you bought), and it may need a few years to get into production.
Please Note: A tree called the Dunstan Hybrid is a blight resistant, Chinese-like seedling tree given a name by its marketer. It is no better than a regular Chinese chestnut seedling tree (some may be more upright with a central leader) but its nut production and survival in Michigan can be very low. It was selected in the southeast US and does not grow well in Michigan. As it is a seedling tree, it is unpredictable in its production (or survival). If 10 Dunstan Hybrid trees are planted, 2 or 3 might be good trees. They will all cross pollenate each other making that part of the orchard simple.
Option 3: Chestnut orchard-style trees. Grafted cultivars from European chestnut trees crossed with Japanese chestnut trees (European X Japanese) is generally the fastest way to obtain, large, high quality nuts. Their response to chestnut blight is variable and susceptible cultivars should be avoided. The cultivars have different names such as ‘Colossal’, ‘Precoce Migoule’, ‘Bouche de Betizac’, ‘Marigoule’, ‘Marsol’, ‘Maraval’, and others. These are more like fast growing oak trees. They can be roundish or pyramidal in shape. The cultivars that start with “M” are chestnut blight resistant.
Strength and weaknesses of this option: The trees should be in solid production 5 to 6 years after planting and will be producing 2 to 3 times more nuts than any Chinese chestnut tree (grafted or ungrafted). You should always plant 3 to 4 different cultivars. A typical planting might consist of ‘Maraval’, ‘Marigoule and ‘Marsol’ where all the trees are chestnut blight resistant and all produce pollen. ‘Colossal’ is an excellent producing tree, but it is chestnut blight susceptible and does not produce pollen. You might plant ‘Colossal’ for its excellent nut production, but you may need to remove it after blight infects it. There are blight treatments, but you would need to get ahold of us to help treat it. This may be 8-15 years after planting. ‘Bouch de Betizac’ is also a good producing, blight tolerant tree. Its great value is resistance to Asian gall wasp, an insect pest that has just arrived in Michigan. The down side is that these are large thorough-bred vigorous trees that need to be cared for to achieve their maximum value. For example, if you are planting in a backyard and it is poorly drained fill dirt, these trees will probably fail. Poor drainage is the worst possible scenario for all chestnuts but especially these trees. Well drained, sandy loam is what they desire.
Option 4: American chestnut trees bred for chestnut blight resistance. The American Chestnut Foundation has bred what they call chestnut blight resistant American chestnut trees. It has yet to be proven if they are chestnut blight resistant. Since they are seedling trees, they will take many years to go into production. You don’t really plant American chestnut for its nuts, although they are tasty and maybe the sweetest of all the nuts. You will have 80-100 American chestnuts in a pound, versus 40 chestnuts in a pound for Chinese or 25 in a pound for the EuropeanXJapanese hybrid trees. You normally plant American chestnut for the sake of nostalgia and uniqueness. From these trees, some may have blight resistance, some may be blight tolerant and some may be blight susceptible. You must be a member of the American Chestnut Foundation to obtain these trees. Check out www.acf.org for more on their program.
If you are planting American chestnut trees from any other source nursery that says they are “blight resistant trees”, more than likely they are not, or they have been crossed with Chinese chestnut and are not fully American chestnut.
Option 5: This is not really an option, yet. There are genetically modified (GMO) American chestnut trees that appear very resistant to chestnut blight. These have not yet been released from research laboratories. Not much is known about nut production at this point.
Remember, never mix Chinese and the European X Japanese hybrid trees in the same orchard. There is a pollen incompatibility and up to 30 percent of the nuts can turn bad.