What is a Chestnut Tree?

Melissa King

The chestnut tree, of the genus Castanea, contains nine species of trees in the beech family Fagacea. The four main species are Chinese, Japanese, American and European. The nuts the trees produce are often used for culinary purposes, and the timber is commonly favored for use in furniture.

Deer are one type of pest that can disturb a chestnut tree.
Deer are one type of pest that can disturb a chestnut tree.

The height to which the chestnut tree can grow varies. American Chestnuts have been reported to grow up to 197 feet (60 meters). Following this is the European Chestnut at 98 feet (30 meters), the Chinese Chestnut at 49 feet (15 meters) and the Japanese Chestnut at 33 feet (10 meters).

The nut of the chestnut tree is often eaten at Christmas.
The nut of the chestnut tree is often eaten at Christmas.

American and European Chestnuts tend to stand very erect and exhibit little spreading when planted among other trees. Japanese and Chinese Chestnuts, however, are usually wide-spreading as they grow. The bark of American and European Chestnut trees is smooth when they are young. The American bark is a reddish-brown color that turns gray with age, while the European's bark remains gray during its entire lifespan.

The leaves of all the trees are oval or lance shaped, with widely-spaced teeth that have wave-like indentations between. After the formation of leaves, sweet-smelling flowers are produced between late spring and early summer. Two or three flowers will then grow together to form what eventually becomes the brown husk of the nuts. A chestnut tree that is planted from seed will take between 30 to 40 years to produce these nuts.

Chestnut trees are generally cold hardy and grow well even during frosts. The only exception is the young buds that appear in springtime, which can be easily damaged by a frost. The trees tend to grow best when planted in full sun. The ideal amount of rainfall for them is typically 31 inches (78.7 centimeters) per year, though established trees can become drought tolerant.

The chestnut tree has many pests, including rabbits, deer, gray squirrels, several types of moths and weevils. The primary disease affecting American and European trees, although typically not the Asian varieties, is the chestnut blight fungus. This disease was responsible for destroying nearly four billion American trees in the early 20th century. Other diseases that can affect the trees include sudden oak death, root rot and oak mildew.

The nuts the trees produce can be eaten in many ways. They can be consumed raw or roasted, candied, steamed, grilled or boiled. The nuts can also be used to produce flour, beer, sugar and serve as a coffee substitute. Chestnuts have a much lower calorie count compared to other nuts. A cup (143 grams) of nuts provides 350 calories. They are low in saturated fat, and are the only nuts that contain vitamin C.

The timber of the chestnut tree is often used in the production of small furniture. It is often used for veneer-covered tables, desks and small dressers — even for coffins. The timber becomes much less durable after 50 years of age, so it is typically not used in the construction of houses or buildings.

Chestnuts can be ground into a powder and used as flour.
Chestnuts can be ground into a powder and used as flour.

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