Once a common sight, Missouri’s native chestnut tree, Castanea ozarkensis, provided food for people and animals as well as wood for furniture and musical instruments. Now, the tree, also called the Ozark chinquapin, is unfamiliar to most Missourians.
In the early 20th century, chestnut blight wiped out millions of Castanea ozarkensis. The remaining trees grow only to a fraction of their former large stature and produce few viable seeds.
But there is hope for this once beloved tree, thanks to efforts from the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, with support from the Missouri Botanical Garden, to identify and cross blight-resistant remnant trees with similar survivors and plant them in the chinquapin’s historic range.
What is the Ozark chinquapin?
Castanea ozarkensis, or the Ozark chinquapin, is a tree native to the Ozark-Ouachita Mountain regions of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It can also be found in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Eastern, and a few others scattered locations in the southeastern US.
Before blight, the tree was once a common upland forest species, and the drought-tolerant hardwood trees grew up to 65 feet tall and 2–3 feet in diameter. Now, the trees now to be 20–30 feet tall. It blooms from May to June, producing yellowish-white flowers and sprout green oblong leaves that turn a shade of yellow in the fall.
The tree produces highly nutritious, sweet-tasting edible chestnuts.
Chestnuts as a food source
Ozark chestnuts are edible raw or roasted. They can also be used in baked goods. The chestnuts were once a food source for Native Americans and early settlers. Indigenous people used them in steamed corn bread dishes similar to tamales that often contained beans and nuts.
Native wildlife, including squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and birds, enjoyed the sweet chestnuts as well.
Medicine and Music
Ozark folklore archives indicate that the Ozark chinquapin had historic medical uses, too, including a tea made from boiling leaves or nuts to remedy a cough, cold, or sore throat. The hardy wood of the chinquapin was used extensively for furniture and fences due to its rot resistance. Wood was also used to create musical instruments, including fiddles and banjoes.
What happened to the Chinquapin population?
Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly called Chestnut blight, arrived in the U.S. from imported chestnut trees from Asia in the 1800s. The disease was first identified in New York in 1904, according to the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, and reached the Ozark area in the 1960s. Within a decade, Ozark Hills “were littered with the dead, rot-resistant carcasses of Ozark chinquapin trees that reached up to 65 feet high”. The blight wiped out all but a few large mature tree.
While there are still rare large trees throughout the range, most chinquapins that survive today are small and produce very few seeds needed to repopulate the species.
Fighting for the future
The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, or OCF, was founded in 2007 with a vision of restoring the native tree back to southern forests and woodlands. Garden Scientist Matthew Albrecht, who serves as a science advisor for OCF, has partnered on this work in various ways.
The Garden’s Center of Conservation and Sustainable Development, or CCSD, helped support the OCF’s blight-testing program to screen trees for blight resistance. The Garden grew dozens of Chinese and American chestnut seedlings, which served as benchmarks for comparing blight resistance in Ozark chinquapin trees and OCF staff infected the leaves of all three species with blight to determine which Ozark Chinquapin trees are more blight resistant and should be used for OCF’s cross pollination work.
The tree is also one of the species CCSD will work on in a new project, funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, that will examine adaptive and neutral genetic and phenotypic variation in botanical garden living collections.
OCF is collecting seeds from trees in the wild this autumn for this research project. Results from this research will help inform ongoing efforts to restore the species to its indigenous range.
At the Garden
The Garden added two Ozark chinquapin to its living collection in 2023. This is part of the Garden’s conservation horticulture approach, which focuses on conserving threatened plants within landscapes in botanical gardens.
“This species checks a lot of boxes for our living collection and the new landscape, as it was not yet represented on grounds, it is threatened, it is a beautiful and interesting tree, and it has loads of educational potential,” explained Becky Sucher, Senior Manager Living Collections.
She hopes that tale of the Ozark chinquapin can inform visitors about the consequences of introducing non-native pests and pathogens to our native flora, how pests and pathogens are introduced, the biology of infection, economic and ecological impacts, management and conservation efforts to control disease, and more.
As work continues, it’s possible additional Ozark chinquapin trees will be added to the Garden’s landscape, or at Shaw Nature Reserve.
For now, look for the two trees out in the landscape outside of the Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center.
Senior Public Information Officer
Many thanks to CCSD Director Matthew Albrecht, Senior Manager of Living Collections Becky Sucher, Senior Vice President, Horticulture & Living Collection Andrew Wyatt, Garden Scientist Wendy Applequist, and Garden Scientist Kate Farley for expert information provided for this post.