The various chinquapin (or chinkapin or chincapin, variant spellings of the common name) species are members of the beech family in the same genus (Castanea) as the American chestnut. Chestnut trees comprised perhaps 35 percent of the hardwood forest canopy in the Southern Appalachians before the devastating fungus blight arrived in this country during the early 20th century. Chestnut root sprouts can be easily located today, of course, but they rarely flower or set fruit before the fungus invades their vascular tissues and fells them.
Chinquapins occur as shrubs four- to 15-feet high or as small bushy trees more than 20-feet high. During the flowering period (June-July), small yellowish-green flowers are produced on graceful, elongated tassels. Chestnut and chinquapin leaves are similar in general appearance. The latter can be easily distinguished by their shorter length and whitish-pubescent undersides. The Cherokees used a solution of steeped chinquapin leaves as a wash to treat chills and fevers.
By late summer or early fall, the branches are hung with numerous spiny burs that crack open to reveal lustrous dark brown nuts. Despite their smallish size, chinquapin’s sweet nuts — 45 percent starch, 2.5 percent protein — are very palatable to both humans and many species of wildlife.
Chinquapin bears an Algonquian name signifying “great seed.” The first published report was made by Capt. John Smith in 1612: “The Indians have a small fruit growing on little trees, husked like a chestnut, but this fruit is most like a very small acorn. This they call ‘checkinquamins,’ which they esteem a great daintie.”
Allegheny chinquapin (Castanea pumila) has a widespread distribution from central New York to north Florida to east Texas. Two varieties have been recognized based on differences in the fruiting burs. The closely related Florida or trailing chinquapin (Castanea alnifolia) is found primarily in southeastern South Carolina and north Florida, but it also appears in scattered areas from Georgia to Louisiana. Ozark chinquapin (Castanea ozarkensis) is found primarily in northwest Arkansas, east Oklahoma, and southwest Missouri with scattered locations also reported from Kansas, Louisana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
During the week that Hurricane Opal ripped out of the Gulf of Mexico up into the Southern Appalachians in the fall of 1995, I was teaching at a camp and conference center near Highlands, just north of the Georgia line. The damage in the general area was considerable with trees, telephone poles, and power lines down in every direction.
Little Scaly Mountain, the site of the conference center, is an exposed rock dome at 4,200 feet with thin soil that supports a population of dwarf white oaks, Allegheny chinquapins, and various other low-growing species like Table Mountain pine that have adapted to the high winds such exposed areas periodically endure. Wind gusts of up 175 mph have been recorded north of Asheville at Grandfather Mountain.
The velocity of the winds that struck Little Scaly Mountain before dawn on Oct. 5 weren’t recorded, but they were truly fierce at times. I may have just imagined that the cliff-side cabin I was staying in lifted a few inches off of its foundation several times; but then, it may not have been my imagination.
Foresters from Clemson University have taken core samples of the dwarf white oaks on Little Scaly Mountain. Despite their small size, some of these trees were growing on this site before Columbus discovered America. The fact that many were twisted and torn asunder by Opal is a sure indication that the winds were exceptional. The so-called “Blizzard of the Century” that struck the Southern Blue Ridge Province in March 1993 did little damage to these oaks.
On the other hand, when I ventured out into the bright sunshine shortly after the hurricane had passed through, the chinquapins looked positively serene, as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. Even their leaves were in place. Growing as shrub-like trees in the understory of the dwarf white oaks, they didn’t offer as much wind resistance as the oaks. And their limbs are far more pliable. For them, it had been just another windy day in the mountains.
As indicated, I’ve always thought that the chinquapin is one of our most graceful small trees. After Hurricane Opal, I now have a newfound respect for their resilience when placed under great stress.