Chestnuts have been enjoyed for centuries. Asian chestnuts (Castanea crenata or C. mollissima) are mentioned in poetry as far back as 5,000 years ago and early Europeans arriving in the New World found forests of American chestnuts (Castanea sp.) blanketed the East Coast from Georgia to Maine and as far west as the Mississippi River.
But while the Asian cultivars are still going strong, the American chestnut was wiped out in the early 1900s. An attempt to import Chinese chestnut trees brought in chestnut blight, to which Asian chestnut trees were mostly immune but American trees were not.
Fifty years and up to 5 billion dead trees later, the American chestnut began to recover. Producing less than 1 percent of the world’s chestnut supply, most chestnuts consumed in the United States come from Italy.
New varieties, developed at the end of the twentieth century, include a wheat gene resistant to chestnut blight that produces a tree almost identical to the wild American chestnut. Harvest and marketing occurs from October to December in most growing regions.
With seeds that look similar to buckeyes, chestnuts are often roasted but the shell must be pierced to prevent explosion due to high moisture content. Chestnuts can also be eaten raw or ground into flour for baking. Larger nuts are preferable for fresh market sale.
Chestnuts are primarily sold fresh in the shell and classified by size (large, giant, jumbo, or mammoth) by the USDA.
Types & Varieties
There are four major species of chestnut tree. The American chestnut has an upright tree form and produces smaller, sweeter nuts. The European chestnut is native to Western Asia, Europe, and North America. European trees also have an upright form, but tend to produce bitter or bland nuts that are larger though harder to peel. Both American and European trees are susceptible to blight.
Chinese chestnuts are native to Northern and Western China and tend to have a low, spreading form with many branches at ground level, though some Chinese cultivars have an upright form. Trees yield medium-sized, sweeter, easy to peel nuts.
Japanese chestnuts are native to Japan and China, are also blight-resistant, and tend to be smaller with a spreading form. Nuts from Japanese trees are large but have an undesirable taste, so trees are used primarily for hybridization.
With seeds that look similar to buckeyes, chestnuts are often roasted but the shell must be pierced to prevent explosion due to high moisture content. Chestnuts can also be eaten raw or ground into flour for baking. Larger nuts are preferable for the fresh market.