Meet the Chinkapin Chestnut

I made a new acquaintance this week. While surveying a dry ridge top I began noticing a strange, musty odor in the air. At about the same time I began seeing what looked like spiny chestnut burs littering the ground. I looked above me and there stood the branches of a chestnut in full bloom! 

It didn't make much sense to me that I would be seeing a Chinese chestnut in such a remote high-elevation area. As it turns out, this was indeed a native species of chestnut, though one I have never encountered before. What I was looking at was a healthy stand of Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila). 

The Allegheny chinkapin is a small tree compared to its cousins. It is native to the southeastern United States where it seems to prefer xeric sites. Now I am a child of the post-chestnut era and therefore I am not used to seeing a native chestnut at reproductive age. As it turns out, the Allegheny chinkapin varies in its susceptibility to the chestnut blight that devastated its relatives. 

Reports from Kentucky as well as the Ozark Mountains show that these populations have suffered severely from the blight. Here in North Carolina, however, the situation seems to be a bit better. Trees don't seem to show the signs of heavy infestation (blighted cankers and cracking of the bark), though some trees do show some scarring. Regardless of their susceptibility, it would seem that they are able to reproduce at a smaller size. On top of that, they readily sucker and it doesn't take long for the suckers to mature. 

All in all this is a lovely tree. It is refreshing to know that there is hope for our native Castanea. Its small stature makes for ample opportunity to appreciate this species when you find it. 

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