Word of Mouth
11:37 am
Tue October 16, 2012

Harvesting Chestnuts In The Granite State

Its fall in New England and that means apples, cranberries, pumpkins, and – about a hundred years ago – it meant chestnuts.

But last century an invasive blight wiped out chestnuts on the East Coast. So in order to get the feel of the autumns of yester-year, NHPR checked in with the effort to bring the once mighty chestnut back to New Hampshire forests.

In the 1800s it’s estimated  there were around 4 billion chestnut trees in the forests of the Appalachian mountains, with New Hampshire marking the northern limit of the trees’ range. In some places, chestnuts accounted for one in four hardwoods in a typical forest.

And that made them a somewhat dangerous place. 

"It's like a minefield here!" I exclaimed on a recent outing with Todd Ross -- a volunteer with the New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut foundation -- as chestnuts fell all around us. He took me to a site in Canaan where there are a few trees that are blighted but have managed to survive so far, and are still pelting the landscape come harvest time.

"They’re like coconuts, if they hit you on the head it’s going to hurt." Ross explains as we move to the relative safety a few yards from one of the trees

If you’ve never seen a chestnut burr, they look like spherical, green sea-urchins, about the size of a lime. After falling off the tree, the protective husk dries out, splits, and peels open exposing a cluster of delicious nuts inside. These spiky shells used to litter forest floors on the seacoast and along the Connecticut River Valley, until in the early 1900’s a Chinese chestnut blight swept through New England.

"It was the single greatest ecological disaster this country has ever seen," Ross says, "and no-body remembers it."

" How would people feel if New England lost the sugar maple, if there was no more maple Syrup?" He continues, "How would we feel about that, how would we feel about the fall foliage that we lost if we lost the sugar maple? That’s the feeling that I try to convey to people that kind of is analogous to the loss of the American chestnut."

Before you say, “woah, spikey falling coconuts? I’m glad we don’t have those in the woods!” consider the virtues of the tree. It grows tall, straight and fast and it’s hardwood, so it yields great timber. Its lumber is rot-resistant, so some century-old New England barns still have their original chestnut-wood sill plates. And unlike other lumber trees, they can produce 2 to 3,000 pounds of nuts per acre each year.

Ross rubs his stomach as he says "I would say the nuts are the most important."

There’s a reason for the song – they’re delicious, and pretty good for you too. Though now-a-days, most of the nuts you find in gourmet food stores are different species imported from Italy, China, or South Korea.

That’s because in 1906 an Asian chestnut blight snuck into the states through the New York Botanical Garden and made short work of the American Chestnut population. Gary Robertson, another Chestnut foundation enthusiast says within forty years, billions of trees were dead or dying.

It hit Appalachia hard. A lot of people there relied on selling chestnuts to earn a living, or to feed their livestock.

"The advance of the blight down the Appalachian mountains happened to coincide with the Great depression, so it was devastating," explains Robertson, "But also, there was no alternative, you couldn’t go and get a job in the middle of the Great Depression!"

But up and down the East coast, including in New Hampshire, the chestnut is on its way back.

The American Chestnut foundation is crossing the blight resistant trees grown in a research orchard in Virginia with hundreds of blight survivors around the country, like the ones in Canaan. They call this the Restoration Chestnut. So far about 30 percent of these trees are blight resistant and but the foundation thinks that reintroducing thousands of trees will speed up the selection process, and they can get that figure up to 80 percent resistant.

But first they have to collect the hybrid nuts from the Canaan trees, and that’s where volunteers like Gary Robertson and Todd Ross come in. Ross will collect the hand-fertilized nuts seventy feet up… in a bucket truck.

While Ross heads up in the bucket to gather the nuts that are part of New Hampshire’s contribution to the Foundation’s reforestation plan, Robertson and I stand around with the truck crew and have a snack.

"Can you eat these raw?  Would it be good? Would I enjoy it?" I ask while using a pocket knife to pry open a burr." Robertson laughs and I bite in. "It kind of reminds me of something but I’m not sure what." I ruminate while chewing.

Robertson laughs again and tells me, "I hate to state the obvious but it tastes like a chestnut."

Ross and Robertson estimate the reforestation project will take around 200 years, and they’ll have to pass the baton long before there are healthy chestnut forests up and down the east coast.

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