The Ozark Chinquapin (Castanea ozarkensis), sometimes called Ozark chestnut, is a drought tolerant hardwood tree once growing to heights of 65 feet and 2-3 feet in diameter. It inhabited the rocky upper slopes and ridge tops of the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Eastern Texas. It was also found in Northern Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. It may have made up to 20% of the species found in the temperate forest west of the Mississippi River. It produced prolific nut crops that both humans and wildlife found delicious. It bloomed in late May to early June after the threat of frost had passed.
The trees produced a bounty of sweet nuts every year without fail, and was sought as a nutritious food source by Native Americans, early settlers, and wildlife. The wood was highly prized for its rot-resistance and made excellent lumber for barns, furniture, railroad ties and fence post. Many Ozark natives fondly remember stuffing their pockets with “chinkapins” on their way to school.
Logging practices and later the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) wiped out the Ozark chinquapin. Today only blighted stumps remain of this once important Ozark tree. Sprouts emerge from the stumps, many managing to produce some nuts, but within 4-6 years the blight again strikes killing the sprouts, starting the blighted cycle all over again. The number of surviving stumps and the historic range of the tree continue to shrink.
The blight spread throughout the natural range of the American chestnut, and eventually reached the Ozarks in the 1960’s. Within a decade, the Ozark hills were littered with the dead, rot-resistant carcasses of Ozark chinquapin trees that reached up to 60 feet high. Today, the chinquapin survives mostly as root suckers that re-sprout after the above-ground portion of the tree is killed, and therefore very few seeds are produced to re-populate the species.
The Ozark chinquapin status is currently listed as an imperiled species by the Missouri Natural Heritage Program.