Allegheny chinquapin

Chinquapins or chinkapins (Castanea pumila), also called dwarf chestnuts, are perhaps one of eastern North America's must unknown and underappreciated nut-producing trees.

The nut, while small (3/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter), is sweet and easily shelled. Getting to the shell is perhaps the hardest part. Surrounded by a husk with 3/4- to 11Ú2-inch spines, it is a prickly nut to get at. In the fall, the husk opens, releasing the chestnutlike nut.

Its native range covers much of the eastern and southern United States. Frederick County is on the western edge of its native range; it is much more common east of the Piedmont region.
Credit: Unknown

While admittedly somewhat hard to find in its native range, once found it is a treasure to revisit every year. Look for it in dry, deciduous forests, upland ridges and disturbed areas such as power line rights of way.

The leaf is similar to that of the American chestnut. Technically speaking, they are simple, alternate-toothed, fuzzy underneath, and 3 to 6 inches in length. While the tree can reach 76 feet in height (the Georgia state champion measured in 1999), in Maryland it will generally grow to 8 to 12 feet.

Growing in the wild, it can form dense thickets, sending shoots up from the roots where deer have nibbled it. These thickets form dense habitats for birds and other species to nest and take cover. Its primary benefits are as a food source for deer, turkey and small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks.

Grown from seedlings, they take three to five years to mature and produce their first crop of nuts. The nuts readily sprout once ripened, even sprouting in the nut bowl! They can be roasted like chestnuts but, due to their smaller size, care should be taken to ensure they can be pulled out of the coals. A better approach is on a grill or in a wood smoker, where they can be placed in a cast-iron pot and checked often. They don't pop like a chestnut, but they are tasty. Raw or roasted, the flavor is very similar to chestnuts; the nut meat is sweet and flavorful.

One interesting side note is that the chinkapin will hybridize with the American chestnut to form Castenea x neglecta Dode.

Article by Jim Arnold, FCFCDB members

Nature Notes for 11/4/2012