Chinese Chestnut- Castanea mollissima is a long cultivated chestnut tree from the far east. They have been selected for centuries for precociousness and form. The ability to bear at a young age and to bear a heavy crop annually are the traits that have made this tree a significant crop tree.
The Chinese Chestnut is very different in form from the American Chestnut. The American Chestnut was a rapidly growing, tall, straight, timber type tree that soared to 100 feet or more. The Chinese Chestnut is by comparison a short, low branching, spreading type tree of 40 to 50 feet in height. they are much more suited to an orchard setting. American Chestnuts can take 20 to 25 years to bear their first crop of nuts. Chinese Chestnuts can bear their first crop in 4 or 5 years.
The ability to crop at a young age is this trees untapped secret. The U.S. imported 3781 metric tons of chestnuts in 2011 valued at 12.4 million dollars. The USDA does not report chestnut production in the U.S. To say that there is an untapped market for local chestnut production in the U.S. is an understatement.
There is a ready demand for locally produced Chestnuts. The local food movement is primed and ready for this crop. Both fresh nuts, in shell and shelled, are readily marketable as well as value added products such as chestnut flour.
Chestnuts can be produced on land that is marginal for other crop production. Young orchards could certainly be under cropped with soybeans or the grass cut for hay.
Another crop benefit of Chestnut trees is the honey produced by bees visiting the masses of chestnut flowers in June. Where there are enough trees, chestnut honey can be produced. It is a favored honey in the chestnut producing regions of Europe.
In addition to the crop potential of the chestnut, the nuts are an excellent high energy forage for wildlife. Deer and turkeys both benefit from chestnut trees. Chinese Chestnut trees can be a key component of wildlife management programs by providing a reliable annual mast crop.
Chinese chestnuts suffer from a few pests and diseases. The best known is the chestnut blight, Cryphonectria parasitica. Imported Chinese Chestnuts brought this disease to the U.S. They have varying degrees of resistance to the blight, though, most trees are able to isolate the attacks with minimal damage.
Chestnut weevils are the larvae of a beetle which lays it’s eggs inside the ripening chestnuts where they develop into an unappetizing grub. The grub matures as the nuts ripen and they bore an exit hole through the shell of the fallen nuts and return to the soil where they live for one to three years before returning to the canopy to reproduce. They can be controlled by spraying in large orchards and by trapping where there are just a few trees.
The other major pest is new to the U.S. The Chestnut Gall Wasp lays it’s eggs in a dormant bud. When the bud begins to grow in the spring it forms a gall ( a swollen ball of tissue) in which the larvae feeds and matures. This pest can cause a significant reduction in the crop but, will not kill the tree. There is currently no way to treat this though some predatory insects have been identified.