Botanical Resonance: Plants and Sounds in the Garden is the exhibition currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open for visitors Tuesday–Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The exhibition content is available online at the Sachs Museum Twitter account and the Sachs Museum Instagram account. Please check the Sachs Museum site for updates and future online events.
Sweet Sounds of the Ozark Chinquapin
Have you heard of the Ozark chinquapin tree? Have you had the opportunity to see one live in person? Have you ever heard music played on an instrument made from this unique species regional to Missouri and Arkansas? It is likely that you answered no to all three questions, but at one time you could have said yes, and one day you might again.
Robert Barnes was one of a dwindling group of Ozark residents that remembered the Ozark chinquapin tree (Castanea ozarkensis). The tree stuck out in his mind because of its myriad of uses. So why are there fewer and fewer people who know such an important tree? More than 99% of the trees have been killed by the Chinese chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) since the blight’s arrival in the mid 1900s. The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation (OCF) was founded over 15 years ago with the goal of restoring a 100% genetically pure, blight-resistant Ozark chinquapin tree back to its historic range. Members and donors support the work of identifying trees, cross-pollinating surviving trees with promising genetics, and distributing nuts to members.
Ozark chinquapin tree, nut, and burs. all photos by A.J. Hendershott.
Barnes lived his whole life in the Ozarks and knew the old lifeways well. In 2008, he told his stories to the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation in hopes that the tree would not be forgotten. Barnes included important details on tree use that were difficult to research. According to Barnes, “The wood produced some beautiful furniture and musical instruments; even today things made from the chinquapin wood is highly prized.” While most have forgotten the tree and its uses, interviews like this one helped preserve a traditional use that has fallen by the wayside.
You can learn more about these interviews here.
Ozarker with chinquapin dulcimer and a chestnut and walnut dulcimer Photos courtesy of OCF and A.J. Hendershott.
Dulcimers, fiddles and banjos are still made today with wood from the Ozark chinquapin, and many are made with the same types of wood as they were a century ago, with one exception: use of chinquapin wood is absent. It is not just gone from use, but from memory. The people who grew up in the 1930s, 40s and 50s are passing away, and with them goes all recollection of the music that was possible thanks in part to the Ozark chinquapin wood.
Dulcimers made from eastern red cedar and walnut (left); and from mahogany and walnut (right). Photos by A.J. Hendershott
Today, there is hope to restore the species. Several government agencies, along with the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation and the Missouri Botanical Garden, are working together to identify and cross blight-resistant remnant trees with similar survivors and plant them in the chinquapin’s historic range. With restoration comes the potential to again use the tree’s gifts, which includes making musical instruments.
The Appalachia and Ozarks Link
Dulcimers are culturally unique to the United States, originating and built in the Appalachians and Ozarks. One of the better-known histories of Appalachia is the Foxfire book series, written by high school students as an effort to preserve some of the Appalachian life ways. Foxfire Volume Three was published in 1975 and had a chapter detailing student visits with a musical instrument maker (known as a luthier) named Robert Mize of Clayton, Georgia. They documented how he built his dulcimers and gave readers a glimpse of what woods he used.
Mize told the students about what he made his dulcimers out of. “Many different woods may be used. I make a combination of wormy chestnut, butternut (white walnut), gum (black gum), or sassafras for the top, and all other parts from black walnut. I also make them using cherry for all parts or curly maple.”
Mize added to his list of wood choices, “I use a lot of wormy chestnut with walnut. The color, grain, and worm holes make a nice-looking top, and also a good tone.” Wormy chestnut is caused by the tunnels chewed by the Chestnut timber borer beetle. Chestnut wood has beautiful grain and color and does make a pleasant sound when used on a dulcimer. The worm holes add to its visual beauty and have no negative impact on the sound.
Chestnut top dulcimer. Photo by Virginia Harold.
According to Mize, there is a science behind what wood goes where: “the combination of a hardwood on back and sides with softer wood for top gives a good mellow sound, and the contrast of two woods is pleasing to see.” The wood choice is important to ensure the sound is able to resonate properly.
Understanding the Appalachians and their people helps to understand the Ozarks. Many of the Ozarks’ settlers were the Scot-Irish and Germans of the Appalachians. When they arrived in the Ozarks they did the exact same thing their European ancestors did: they adapted what they knew with the resources available to them. Most every tree that Appalachian luthiers might use for a dulcimer were available, save one. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) didn’t live west of the Mississippi River. Fortunately, the Ozark chestnut, also known as the Ozark chinquapin (Castanea ozarkensis), did. As it turns out, it had similar qualities for musical instruments and was used for the same parts as the American chestnut in the east. While chinquapin wood resonance has not been a subject of scientific experiments, other qualities of the wood such as its density, strength, tannic acid content, and even color have been shown to be closely aligned with its Appalachian cousin.
A dulcimer made partially from Ozark chinquapin and partially from walnut (left) and a dulcimer made entirely from Ozark chinquapin (right).
Photos by A.J. Hendershott.
Building an Ozark Chinquapin Dulcimer
In the summer of 2012, the Ozarks had a dramatic heat wave and drought that hurt a lot of trees of every species. One of the trees in southwest Missouri that the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation worked with for pollen and seed production died during that drought. While this was a loss, the tree’s genetics live on in seeds that were successfully planted on other sites around the Ozarks. And to make the best use of it, the wood was sawn up into boards for special projects like this one.
Many wood workers have experience working with walnut and can tell you it is enjoyable to use. It is not too hard but not too soft, and it is a very stable wood that tends not to warp when drying. By comparison, the Ozark chinquapin wood had highly visible growth rings that may in part explain how it complements the walnut for resonance. The wood worked well with small, sharp wood shaving planes known as finger planes. The chinquapin wood took a finish well which really made the grain pop. Its lighter appearance contrasted nicely with the walnut.
Ozark chinquapin dulcimer in progress; all photos by A.J. Hendershott
With modern methods, a dulcimer can take a day to assemble and several days to get the parts cut and shaped properly. Consider the Ozark mountaineers who had nothing but hand tools—no band saw, table saw or planer. Those century-old dulcimers were made without internet, mail-order supplies, or blueprints. Did those builders of yesterday simply see a dulcimer and then recreate it after careful study? Or did they borrow one to work with until they had their own built? Regardless, it is easy to respect historic instruments as a work of art. Each instrument had to be strong, beautiful, and sound good when played. Old black and white photos of hill dulcimers come alive with their story of creation.
Mountain dulcimers are one of the easier instruments to learn to play. Beginners only have to fret two strings, and the other two strings make the same sound with each strum.
This Ozark chinquapin dulcimer was crafted to illustrate the sound, the texture, and even the visual appeal this species’ wood can create. Stimulating the senses in this way is so much better than simply telling people the wood is valuable. Even though a tree is inherently valuable just because it exists, once affected by the beauty and music of the dulcimer, it is easier to argue that this tree has value and needs to be saved.
Ozark chinquapin dulcimer. This example is on view in the Sachs Museum exhibition, Botanical Resonance: Plants and Sounds in the Garden through March of 2023. Photo by A.J. Hendershott.
The chestnut blight was introduced to the New York Bronx Zoo in 1904. It made a steady march over the next four decades through the eastern seaboard, the Appalachians, and eventually the Ozarks. The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata), the shrubby Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila), and the Ozark chinquapin tree (Castanea ozarkensis) were all susceptible to the ravages of the blight. As a consequence, all three species have had radical declines. Even though its nuts are edible, its wood highly prized, and its leaves and spiny burs once used to dye fabric, the Ozark chinquapin was almost forgotten.
Hope in making this species stronger has grown when trees have been found that seem to be resilient even when being infected by the cambium killing fungus. Those trees grew to heights of 40 feet or greater while being surrounded by their species brethren who died back due to the blight. Those surviving champions are the breeding stock to grow a future batch of trees that are 100 percent pure Ozark chinquapin with the genetic code for surviving the fungal infection. Chinquapin trees in the Ozarks used to reach heights of 80 feet and girths of several feet in diameter.
Large Ozark chinquapin tree in the Ozarks (left) and items made from the Ozark chinquapin (right). Photos by A.J. Hendershott.
One day the Ozark chinquapin tree could once again dwell in the Ozarks. More blight-resistant trees are being identified each year and their progeny planted all over the Ozarks. Once scarcity of the tree is no longer a problem, then rot-resistant and attractive wood can once again be used to craft fine furniture and instruments. In this way, Robert Barnes’ memories will not be lost but reborn. It is certain that it would please him greatly to think dulcimers, fiddles and banjos will one day be proudly made in the Ozarks using the beautiful wood of the Ozark chinquapin tree. It just seems right that former uses become possible once more as we save this American treasure.
Steve Bost with an Ozark chinquapin (left). Photo by Leslie Bost. Ozark chinquapin tree orchard in Missouri protected from small mammals in grow tubes (right). Photo by A.J. Hendershott
This blog post was authored by A.J. Hendershott, who works with the Missouri Department of Conservation as a Regional Supervisor in the Education Branch. In his job he has the opportunity to work with many conservation issues, including rare and declining species. The Ozark chinquapin is a plant that he has taken particular interest in personally and professionally. He volunteers his time with the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation (OCF) as the current Vice President and has a chinquapin orchard planted on his family property. He contributes to the OCF website and the OCF Facebook. A.J. enjoys learning about history, and with any fact he uncovers about historic use of this plant, he endeavors to make ethically sourced reproductions. To learn more visit https://ozarkchinquapinmembership.org.