But chances are you won’t be eating chestnuts roasting on an open fire or any other sort of fire for the holidays, unless you cheat and pick up some European or Chinese chestnuts at a roadside stand.
As everyone knows, the blight introduced during the early part of the last century has just about eradicated that species from our flora, except for root sprouts that rarely flower and fruit before they die back after a few years. But if you have chinquapin (also spelled chinkapin) trees growing on your property or being marketed at a stand in your vicinity, you can have a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.
For my money “the little brother of the chestnut” — as it’s sometimes called — is one of our more graceful and interesting plants, especially when their fruits have ripened. They occur as shrubs four to 15 feet high or as small bushy tree 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 its shorter length and whitish-pubescent undersides.
By 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, two and a half 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 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 roared out of the Gulf of Mexico 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 also adapted to the high winds such exposed areas periodically endure. Gusts of up to 175 mph have been recorded north of Asheville at Grandfather Mountain.
The velocity of the winds that struck Little Scaly Mountain before dawn on October 5, 1995, weren’t recorded, but they were 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.
The dwarf white oaks (Quercus alba) on Little Scaly have been core-sampled by foresters from Clemson University. Despite their small size, some 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 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 under story 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 mentioned, I’ve always thought that the chinquapin is one of our most graceful small trees. In the wake of Hurricane Opal, I developed a newfound respect for their resilience when placed under great stress. And in lieu of American chestnuts for the holidays, maybe I’ll happen upon a roadside stand with a hand-painted sign reading: “Chink-a-pins $5 Qt.”