Alachua, FL (October 5, 2021) At some point, we’ve all wondered walk it would be like to go back in time and see the world as it once was before vast forests were hewn and the land carved up into roads and house lots and covered on concrete and steel. It would look quite different, but more so than you might think. The boundless forests of eastern North America hardly resembled even the most pristine remnants that persist in our national forests and parks.
Hiking along what would one day become the Appalachian Trail might seem quite strange and foreign. Mighty oaks that now dominate the landscape would be fewer and farther between. Scarcer still would be lone white pines, towering straight and tall, many stories high, waiting to perhaps to one day be felled and carried to the coast and carved into a ship’s mast. The dominant tree in the eastern hardwood forest was the American chestnut.
Before European settlers arrived and for a long time after, chestnuts were an important source of hard mast for deer, bear, turkeys and a host of other wildlife. After settlement, they became economically important, particularly to people of the southern Appalachians. Their mast was gathered by the bushel. Some was brought home, and the rest sold, all for human consumption. Their wood - lightweight, soft, easy to split, resistant to decay and warping or shrinking - was ideal for posts, poles, pilings, railroad ties and split-rail fences. Its straight grain also made it desirable for building log cabins, furniture and caskets. The leather industry used even the tannin extracted from its bark for tanning. Yet in the geologic blink of an eye, they would all be gone ... almost all.
In the early 1900s, a blight was introduced into the United States, most likely from Asian chestnut trees imported as nursery stock. Over the next 30 years, it spread from Maine to Georgia, decimating an estimated 30 million acres of trees. By the Great Depression, the most common hardwood tree in eastern North America had been all but wiped out.
Like a germinating nut, hope springs eternal, and a few dedicated botanists held out hope that one day chestnuts might return to the eastern forest. One such individual was Dr. Robert T. Dunstan, a well-known plant breeder in Greensboro, N.C. A friend of Dunstan's - James Carpentar, discovered a large living American chestnut in a grove of dead and dying trees in Ohio. Carpentar sent Dunstan some budwood, which he then grafted onto chestnut rootstock and cross-pollinated with specially selected Asian varieties. As the new stock gradually grew and bore fruit, Dunstan selected individuals with the best hybrid characteristics, crossing them back to both the American and Chinese parent trees until he developed a superior variety - the Dunstan Chestnut.
Today, those trees and generations of offspring grow at the nurseries of Chestnut Hill Outdoors in Alachua, Florida, where they provide stock for like-minded individuals who strive to restore the chestnuts and the landscape not just for themselves but for generations of humans and wildlife still to come.
Restoring chestnuts is no short-term endeavor, but the Dunstan legacy lives on through Dr. Dunstan’s great-grandson, Iain Wallace, who now manages the orchards at Chestnut Hill Outdoors. Like his father and his father before, Wallace also oversees the annual harvest.
Traditional chestnut harvest is done by hand, and because chestnuts are borne in spiny husks called burrs, heavy gloves are necessary. In commercial orchards, pickers are often paid by the pound or by the bucket as an incentive to work quickly and to control costs. Some growers offer this as a fund-raiser to schools or church groups. Private landowners sometimes make it a weekend social event, letting friends, family and/or neighbors share in the work and the bounty. When the nuts start to fall, they must be harvested quickly to reduce desiccation and spoilage and prevent pilfering by wildlife. The latter can be a bane to commercial orchardists but represents a boom for private landowners interested in attracting and feeding wildlife.
The folks at Chestnut Hill Outdoors recognized this not as a problem but as an opportunity. Today they provide not only nursery stock to those seeking to put down roots and enrich the landscape; they also offer sound advice on how and why to go about it.
Mast orchards are a great way to provide nutritious wildlife food, potentially in perpetuity. Landowners wishing to do so have a choice in what they plant, but not all trees or their nuts are created equal. It turns out that chestnuts are superior to acorns, and Dunstan Chestnuts even more so.
For starters, they’ve proven their blight resistance will not succumb to potentially devastating infestations that could plague other chestnut varieties. They grow faster and bigger than oaks, sometimes bearing in two to five years, where a white oak might not bear for 20 years. They’re more important from a wildlife standpoint because they lack the boom and bust cycles more common to oaks. Furthermore, they bloom later in the spring, so they are far less susceptible to broad-scale mast crop failures caused by late freezes.
Perhaps best of all, Dunstan Chestnut trees eventually become prolific producers of hard mast that deer, other wildlife and humans can benefit from. Dunstan Chestnuts are large, averaging 15-35 nuts/lb, compared to Chinese nuts (35-100/lb) and American nuts (75-150/lb). They're highly nutritious, containing four times the carbohydrates of a white oak acorn, 2.5 times the protein and only a fraction of the fat. They also have fewer tannins, making them much sweeter and thus more palatable to both wildlife and humans. In addition, Dunstan Chestnuts can produce nuts in only 3-5 years of age, depending on care and climate. And they'll continue producing more nuts with each passing year and generation.
Times have changed since chestnuts once dominated the forest. We live for the moment, racing from home to work and back on busy streets, hustling to keep up with our fast-paced world. We can’t go back in time, but perhaps we can alter our course a little by bringing the past into the present and the future. Our forbears better understood the importance of investing in the land now, knowing it may take years to realize the benefit. Still, understanding the value of the legacy, they leave behind.