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Chary Chestnut

By Audrey Stallsmith

Castanea vesca

Hot chestnuts!  Hot chestnuts!  Come hither and buy
Hot chestnuts!  Come, lassies and lads, come and try!
Afraid of your fingers?  My chestnuts won’t burn;
They are done to a nicety-- just to a turn.

“Hot Chestnuts”—Anonymous

That probably should be “afraid for your fingers,” which makes more sense!   You may also need to be afraid for your fingers when harvesting chestnuts, which protect themselves by growing enclosed inside spiny husks.  

My father came across some littering a country road this autumn. The owner didn’t mind Dad taking them, so he gathered up a bucketful.  Despite—or perhaps because of their prickly personas—the nuts are attractive, as proved by the fact that I won second place in a contest with a photograph of one. 

Chestnuts have good reason to feel persecuted, since the American "toothed" type, Castanea dentata, has been nearly wiped out by a blight.  Therefore, the chestnuts Dad collected probably were the Chinese "soft" variety, mollissima.  The blight was introduced by the imported "round-toothed" Japanese species, crenata, in the early 1900s. 

Although Oriental chestnuts can spread the disease, they generally are somewhat immune to it themselves, with the European "sweet" or "thin" variety, sativa or vesca, being less so.  Individual American chestnut trees do occasionally survive, provided that they stay miles away from any of their relatives! 

The European type apparently originated in Turkey before being imported into Greece and Italy, where it also prospered, having a preference for somewhat dry conditions.  The trees’ genus name derives from the town of Castanis in Greece, and "chestnut" from the French word for the nut—originally chastain, now châtaigne. 

Dad recently asked whether I could try growing a tree from the nuts.  After consulting an article I once wrote for E-how on How to Plant a Chestnut Seed, I realized that I should have sown them right away, as they are most viable within a week after they have fallen from the tree.

I followed my own instructions and tried soaking a few chestnuts overnight, but they all continued to bob on top of the water---not a good sign since sinking indicates viability for most seeds. Suspecting that air trapped within the shells was keeping them afloat,  I peeled them. 

The naked kernels did promptly sink then, but I had to discard a couple which had developed black spots, and the others already appeared somewhat shriveled.  Perhaps this chestnut tree wasn’t so healthy after all!  I’ll try refrigerating those kernels to see whether they eventually sprout in February, but I don’t have high hopes. 

Chestnuts are, or course, popular at the holiday season, partly due to that song about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”  In the past, they stuffed both turkeys and pheasants, as well as soups and puddings.

Although the tree’s astringent leaves have treated fevers and whooping cough, the chestnut is most famous for its excellent timber.  That apparently always has been somewhat expensive, as the chestnut stands for “luxury” or “Do me justice” in the Language of Flowers.  (I’m guessing, from the latter meaning, that its wood may have been common in courtrooms.) 

Thoreau once asked, “Have we no culture, no refinement,—but skill only to live coarsely and serve the Devil?—to acquire a little worldly wealth, or fame, or liberty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no tender and living kernel to us?”  As the year draws to a close, we should ponder his question about whether our institutions—or we ourselves—are “like those chestnut burs which contain abortive nuts, perfect only to prick the fingers?”