Ozark chinquapin, an American treasure
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 is also found in Northern Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. 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.
“The Ozark Chinquapin nuts were delicious and we waited for them to fall like you would wait on a crop of corn to ripen,….. they were that important. Up on the hilltop the nuts were so plentiful that we scooped them up with flat blade shovels and loaded them into the wagons to be used as livestock feed, to eat for ourselves, and to sell. Deer, bears, turkeys, squirrels, and a variety of other wildlife fattened up on the sweet crop of nuts that fell every year. But, starting in the 1950’s and 60′ all of the trees started dying off. Now they are all gone and no one has heard of them.”
–98 year old Missouri outdoors-man describing the trees
The Ozark chinquapin was described originally as Castanea arkansana (Ashe 1923) but later renamed as C. ozarkensis by Moore (1992). Some authorities have recognized this taxon as the variety arkanensis (Ashe) G. E. Tucker of the Allegheny chinquapin Castanea pumila (L.) Mill., but recent molecular evidence indicates that the two are not this closely related. Indeed, all three North American species form a distinct clade, with Ozark chinquapin as the basal lineage, sister to the group consisting of Allegheny chinquapin and American chestnut (Dane et al. 2003). The Ozark Chinquapin is more genetically diverse than any other North American chestnut species.
What happened to the trees?
Today, unfortunately, as you hike the trails of the Ozarks, you will likely not have seen an Ozark Chinquapin in the wild, as logging practices and chestnut blight have wiped them almost entirely out of the forests. There are still stumps to be found but after resprouting the blight again strikes killing the sprouts, starting the blighted cycle all over again.
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.
What Ozark chinquapin were like before the blight
A survey of Ozark chinquapin in northwest Arkansas showed the tree to be widespread but uncommon, locally concentrated on sandstone benches and upper slopes in karst terrain. The remains of pre-blight chinquapin trees were mapped and measured on two 200 ha sites in Benton and Washington counties. Tree density was estimated at about 1 tree per ha, consistent with published upland witness tree surveys. 108 relatively intact logs were documented, representing about half of the total large chinquapins estimated to have grown on the two sites. Most of these grew as single-stemmed trees up to 20 m in height and 40 cm in diameter. The predominance of single-stemmed trees may indicate the relative absence of fire in pre-blight forests. The lack of subsequent sprouts from the base of large trees and the abundance of living sprout clones not associated with old trees indicates most sprouts are old seedlings. Tree rings were used to reconstruct stand history on six 20 × 60 m plots. Release of adjacent trees showed that blight arrived in 1957. Stand recruitment was concentrated in an extended period from 1920 to 1940, with a few older trees dating to the mid 1800’s. Estimated ages for chinquapin logs seemed to pre-date oak and hickory recruitment, suggesting release of suppressed understory stems. Tree rings were used to determine the diameter of trees on the plots in 1955. Height-diameter projections were used to compare the stature of the stand with reconstructed remains of chinquapin logs, demonstrating that Ozark chinquapin was growing as a canopy-dominant tree at the time when blight arrived.
Saving an American treasure
In 2007 The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation was founded by a man who had a vision of restoring the native tree to southern forests. Through his efforts, and those of hundreds of volunteers over the last decade, we have been able to establish a viable seed base through research and manual cross-pollination of surviving trees. Our goal is to develop a pure Ozark Chinquapin that is blight resistant, and make the seed available to anyone who wants to help restore the tree to its native forest range.