Chinquapin Chestnut as a Productive Food Crop
Chinquapin chestnuts (Castanea pumila) were once a treasured food crop in the Eastern part of the United States (roughly from Florida to Pennsylvania, west to Texas). It was generally only available in local markets, and was typically foraged from the wild in places where it grew abundantly. Native Americans ate chinquapins raw, dried them for long-term storage, boiled them and mashed them.
From Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste: "On November 26, 1898, the Trenton Evening Times wrote an article about the stir a rare appearance of chinquapins in a northern market occasioned. The seller observed, 'They are more delicate than the chestnut and of rare flavor, but too small for the candy and cake maker to bother with or to be used for the table. They are nice to nibble at in between times... The best of them are exceptionally sweet, tender and well-flavored... The chinquapin doesn’t need cooking like the chestnut to reduce it to toothsomeness.'
But the chinquapin fell into relative obscurity following the devastating fungal plight that nearly sent the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) to extinction, and the increased availability of imported chestnuts from Europe, Japan, Korea, and China. Yet the chinquapin is much less impacted by the chestnut blight -- it does prevent the tree from reaching heights it previously reached, but it does not prevent the plant from producing copious amounts of nuts under the proper growing conditions. While the fungus does kill the tallest limbs/trunks of chinquapin plants by the time they reach 30 feet in heigh (they once grew to over 60 feet), the roots are apparently undamaged and continue to send up new branches.
Beyond the impact of the blight, a few traits have conspired to keep chinquapin chestnuts from being improved as crop plants: 1) the relatively small size of the seeds, 2) the propensity of seeds to germinate in the Fall, sometimes before they even fall from the plant, 3) the uneven ripening of seeds, 4) the deep love of squirrels for chinquapins, and 5) the challenges of processing large amounts of chinquapin seeds. We believe these obstacles are not insurmountable -- and this project will attempt over many years to develop chinquapin chestnut plants with larger seeds that ripen uniformly. Reducing Fall germination may also be possible (though sprouted nuts and grains have found a significant market in recent years), and finding ways to process seeds and protect them from pests must be possible.
This project seeks volunteers both for growing trees over many years and for collecting seeds and/or cuttings from wild or cultivated trees. Both subspecies of chinquapin (Allegheny and Ozark) are being studied/utilized in this project.
As a farmer and plant breeder, Nate is primarily interested in utilizing agriculture as a tool in the fight against climate change -- while at the same time working to preserve crop biodiversity, restore ecosystems and wildlife populations, and further the cause of social and economic justice for farmworkers and all people. He speaks on food justice, agroecology, participatory plant breeding, climate change, and other issues at conferences and events around the United States.
Nate's favorite food plants include mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), maypops (Passiflora incarnata), chinquapin chestnuts (Castanea pumila), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), 'Nanticoke' squash (Cucurbita maxima 'Nanticoke'), 'Sehsapsing' corn (Zea mays subsp. mays'Sehsapsing'), 'Tracy' rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum), red & white currants (Ribes spicatum), cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), seakale (Crambe maritima), garlic (Allium sativum), and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas).