Range Article

could evidence of large trees in the east provide clues about the range of the Ozark chinqaupin?  

By AJ Hendershott and Christopher Wyatt

Where the Ozark chinquapin tree lives is a curious matter with an air of mystery that is slowing being revealed.  Like all good mysteries it had a starting place, and this one begins with a map.   Not a pirate treasure map but a range map.  It was the small range map that identified the tree restricted to southwest portions of Missouri and northwestern portions of Arkansas.   With a little sleuthing we have learned that the tree was formerly recorded and still resides in the Ozarks of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana.  Ozark Chinquapin Historic Range Map 

Lesser known, the Ozark chinquapin tree is also documented in Mississippi and Alabama.  Not exactly the Ozarks but the tree’s name is fixed for where it is best known. 

The mystery deepened when genetic work revealed that Ozark Chinquapin trees were their own species and occurred in other states like North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia.  Chinquapin Science and Research Links

Curious.  Based on new genetic data there are Ozark chinquapins living in areas where we didn’t think they occurred. 

While geneticists examine this data and make sense of it there are more clues to the Ozark chinquapin range map mystery It comes in the form of newspaper reports.  During the 1800s and early 1900s it was common to report the common goings on of the community and countryside.  Reporters would print simple things about chestnuts and chinquapins ripening or being collected.  They would sometimes reference the prices at a market.  

Reports From the Past

Keep in mind that during this time period the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata), which grew tall and produced one to three nuts per bur was known to be different from the thicket forming cousin the Allegheny chinquapin (C. pumila) that produced a smaller single nut per bur.   According to the USDA Plant Fact Sheet The plant reaches a mature height of 15-20 feet compared to the chestnut that could reach 90-120 feet tall.  Trunk size was also comparatively stark between the two.  The chestnut tree achieved girths of 16 feet in diameter while the Allegheny girth seldom spanned more than several inches.  Furthermore, the Allegheny leaves were shorter and had a hairy underneath compared to the Chestnut’s longer blade with smooth undersurface.  Chestnuts had larger burs that opened into four parts to reveal the nuts inside.  Chinquapins split into two halves to reveal the single nut. The two were not easily confused, and that is what makes this next part so interesting.

Take for instance this newspaper article from the Roanoke Times, on June 25 of 1895.

“An Enormous Chinquapin Tree:  Doubtless few people know that the little shrub known as the chinquapin ever grows larger than the ordinary bush that we see along the roadside.  Anyone holding such opinion may have it effectually removed by visiting the farm of Mr. W.L. Spracher, four miles from town.  In his orchard, there is growing today one of these trees that is four feet in diameter. It formerly had a very fine top, but a storm a few years ago damaged it considerably.”  Roanoke, Virginia.

Four feet in diameter?  That seems awfully large.  Perhaps he misspoke and meant circumference?   Regardless, you might wonder how he knew it was a chinquapin.  The single nut would be a major clue as would other information.  But unfortunately, this report didn’t get into any of that, but this next report from Maryland did. 

“Rockville, Md. Nov 3. – While hunting on the farm of the late Henry Bradley, in Fotomas district, this county.  Judge Edward C. Peter found a chinquapin tree measuring about 25 feet in height and a foot and half across the trunk.  The ground was covered with burrs and nuts which showed that the chinquapins had ripened much later than is usual for such nuts hereabouts and probably about the time chestnuts ripened.  It is the only tree of the kind known of in the country.  Judge Peter inclines to the opinion that the unusual growth may be due to nature grafting.  The tree grows out of what appears to be a stump of a chestnut tree.  Judge Peter has reported the case to the United States Agricultural Department.”  The Frederick Post; Frederick, Maryland.  November 3, 1911.

With no disrespect to the Judge, was this a natural grafting?  Or was it perhaps an Ozark Chinquapin tree?  The size of the tree and the timing of the nuts ripening are two solid clues.  Admittedly there is no way to tell for sure now.  Taken by itself it may not mean much but there is more to consider.

Yet another large chinquapin tree turned up in Maryland.  The interesting part of this entry is they took the time to say why they thought it was a chinquapin. 

“A Freak of Nature – Mr. H. C. Mettam, Giyndon, Md., sends THE SUN a branch of burs that appears to be a cross between the chinquapin and chestnut.  A chestnut tree was cut down several years ago, and the shoots that usually spring up around the stump appeared and have produced these nuts.  The chinquapin is a dwarf chestnut, but these nuts are quite large, and there are twelve burs clustered on the end of the limb occupying only six inches of space that have the regular formation characteristic of the chinquapin.” The Baltimore Sun; Baltimore, Maryland.  September 20, 1890.

Perhaps the tree that was cut down was not a chestnut after all and it was really an Ozark chinquapin.  Taken all alone each one of these accounts could be dismissed or picked apart. But many more instances occurred in the eastern United States. 

Fast forward roughly 4 decades to September of 1932 where we read the headline, “Madison Chinquapin Is Largest In State”, Followed by this report, “MARSHALL, Sept 24 (special) – A chinquapin tree, according to experts, the largest in North Carolina, is again yielding nuts in the Tillery branch section of Madison County.  This tree is nearly sixty feet high, and is four feet in diameter a foot above the ground.  The average size for these trees is about two to five inches in diameter and approximately five to twenty feet high, although most of them are about ten to fifteen feet high.”   Asheville Citizen – Times, Asheville North Carolina, September 25, 1932. 

Yes, another report of a 4 feet diameter tree, this time in a different state, with different people reporting it.  Again, there is no mention of the nut shape or number per bur, or anything that would tell us why they think it is a chinquapin instead of a chestnut.  We are left with the decision whether to take them at their word. 

Roughly a year prior that same tree was featured as a submission for consideration with Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  In this news article we get a little more detail on the tree and its dimensions compared to the Allegheny chinkapin shrubs on the same farm. 

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT. This is a chinquapin tree, believe it or not.  It is 11 feet and 11 inches in circumference, and 45 ½ inches in diameter and grows on the farm of W.R. Bishop, Route 3, Marshall.  The freak feature of this tree is that chinquapins usually grow on small bushes and few of this species have ever been known to attain the size of even a small tree.  The other chinquapins on the Bishop farm and all over Madison County for that matter are small bushes.  J. B. Reed of Marshall sent this picture to The Citizen as his entry in the “Believe it or NOT” contest.  This suggestion, along with some 2,000 others received in the contest are now being judged by Robert L. Ripley, in New York.  Mr. Ripley expects to have his prize-winning selections ready for The Citizen to announce within a few Days.”  The Citizen – Times, Asheville, North Carolina, October 9, 1931.

With this being the first article on this tree mentioning it at roughly 4 feet in diameter, and the 1932 mention of the same dimension, I think it is safe to say the tree was as big as reported.  It even suggests credibility for the 1895 tree in Roanoke, Virginia reporting a similar 4 feet diameter.

There are more mentions of large chinquapin trees. Here is one from Gastonia, North Carolina, January 3, 1959, “G.C. Rhyne, who lives near the line between River Bend, and South Point townships, tells of a huge chinquapin tree that grew on his premises, formerly owned by his father, Johnny Rhyne, a tanner by trade.  The tree measures 8 feet and 10 inches in circumference.  It died in the dry year, 1881, and was over 100 years old.  Mr. Rhyne says he knew the tree to produce 47 crops of chinquapins without a single failure.”  The Gastonia Gazette.  The lack of nut crop failure is another clue.  Chinquapins bloom later than chestnuts and that gives them less chance of being impacted by a late frost or freeze. 

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported on the blight reaching Appalachian forests, and in doing so revealed one nugget of information about chinquapin size that may be related to Ozark chinquapins, “Reach Appalachians:  The chestnut blight is thought to have reached the Appalachian hard wood forests during the years of the World War or between 1914 and 1918.  The blight also damages chinquapin bushes and trees.  The nuts of the both the chestnut and chinquapin have been growing smaller and less wholesome for years until the large and perfect chestnut is now unusual.”  Asheville Citizen-Times, Asheville, North Carolina.  October 16, 1935.

Did you notice they refer to Chinquapin bushes and trees?  The underlined emphasis is mine.  Whoever wrote this understood that chinquapins were bushes (Allegheny chinkapins – C. pumila) and could be trees.   Were they referencing what we would call and genetically would have eventually been called an Ozark chinquapin (C. ozarkensis)?

But more places referred to chinquapin trees.

The Nashville Barrier reported on squirrels in chinquapin trees on October 19, 1907, “Squirrels?  O, there’s lots of them.  Before we had that cold spell a man could go most anywhere in the woods and kill a gunny sack full of them.  They were everywhere.  You could shoot one out a tree and another would run out on the limb and bark at you.  A big Chinquapin tree would have twenty in it maybe.” 

First notice the chinquapin is called a tree and said to have 20 squirrels in it.  As a squirrel hunter myself, I will testify that a tree would have to have some size and appeal to hold 20 squirrels.

Here is another indicator of size.  An advertisement placed in the Daily Nashville Patriot, on October 30, 1856 asked for railroad ties

“TO THE TIMBER MEN.  CROSS TIES WANTED. 

Proposals will be received at the office the Edge Field and Kentucky Railroad Company until November 10th for the delivery of twenty-five thousand cross ties.  Said ties to be eight feet long, with ends cut square, six inches thick and sawed or hewed true on the parallel faces, each of which shall be at least six inches wide exclusive of sap, when sawed, or hewed on more than two sides to be a least seven inches wide.  They must be of good quality, of red cedar, white chinquapin or post oak.  Proposals may be made for delivering the whole lumber number at Nashville, or Payne’s Lumber, on the Cumberland River, or for twelve Thousand at either of these points., and thirteen thousand one mile West of Goodlettsville at the junction of Tyree Springs and Springfield Turnpikes.”  

Ties eight feet long, 6 X 7 inches on the end are large logs.  To get a log that size the small end further up the tree is the limiting factor.  So, the tree has to be at least 9 or more inches on the small end of the log which is over eight feet above the ground.  That is a sizable tree.  No railroad construction crew would ask for railroad ties made from a shrub.  This was a tree and it obviously occurred in and around Central Tennessee in high enough abundance that the local people would know what it was. 

A unique news story involved large chinquapin lumber being collected and sawn to make a steam boat for the large rivers.  The story was carried in a New Orleans paper and in a Kentucky paper.  Each report has similar information but each article has detail unique to its report. 

“Louisville, April 4 . . . The Ashland City {boat name} arrived from Cumberland River with a barge of chinquapin logs, to be sawed into plank and timber for Captain Ryman’s new boat, which Ed Howard is going to build.  The boat returned to Nashville.  The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana. April 5, 1895

“Capt. T. J. Ryman has contracted with Ed Howard for a new Cumberland River packet to be a duplicate of the Reuben Dunbar {boat name}.  The hull is to be built of chinquapin wood.  The logs to be brought from the Cumberland river and sawed into plank and timbers in Howard’s Mill.”  The Courier Journal; Louisville, Kentucky June 3, 1895.

“A big sawmill at Paducah is sawing chinquapin logs into 30,000 feet of lumber to be used in the construction of Captain Tom Ryman’s boat being built by Ed Howard at Jeffersonville.”  the Courier Journal; Louisville, Kentucky June 7, 1895.  This exact reference was also printed in The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana a few days later June 13, 1895.

“Captain Tom Ryman is going to build another new boat.  He is getting out the chinquapin logs on the Cumberland River, to be sawed up into timbers for the hull.  His new steamer, Reuben Dunbar, just built by Howard will be ready to start out shortly.”  The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana.  November 26, 1895.

Why choose chinquapin lumber?  It is rot resistant which would make it appealing for a boar hull.  Howard’s Mill in Paducah, Kentucky was sawing up chinquapin logs for lumber, which probably served as the downstream sawmill location.  The lumber was planking for the hull and wood for the structural timbers of the frame.  The wood was sourced along the Cumberland River which runs through Tennessee and Kentucky.  Paducah is near where the Cumberland River meets the Ohio River.

Here is the part that is amazing.  30,000 board feet of chinquapin lumber.   The reports don’t say the size of the timber but wouldn’t a boat builder want long and wide planks for their hull?  Increasing the number of seams would increase risks of leaks.  If this boat was made of chinquapin lumber, it seems to me it would be cut from trees and not shrubs.   It would take 115 Ozark chinquapin trees at 20 inch diameter at 18 feet length to get this estimated 30,000 board feet of lumber.  This would equal 260 board feet per tree. With that kind of lumber requirement it meant that a lot of chinquapin lumber was coming off the Cumberland River watershed.  It had to be common enough to expect to find that kind of quantity. 

Another chinquapin tree mention occurred on December 15, 1952 in the Courier – Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.  In this article they reference a “chinquapin tree” next to a schoolhouse producing edible chinquapin nuts that do not come from an oak.  Again it is called a tree – not a shrub. 

In this 1884 report from the Chatham Record in North Carolina, a much larger size chinquapin was described, “We learn from Mr. Sam Must that there is a chinquapin tree in this county near Mr. Daniel Ferguson’s measuring over 14 feet in circumference, which would be very near 5 feet in diameter.  This is certainly the largest we have ever heard of, and as the chinquapin is a tree of very slow growth it is impossible to say how old it may be.”  The Chatham Record.  Pittsboro, North Carolina.  May 22, 1884

Large chinquapins would certainly catch attention when you compare that to their normal growth habit. 

This large chinquapin was measured in terms of its crown spread.  At first it might seem they are describing the world’s largest tree trunk ever, until you read the full entry, “The Biggest of Chinquapin Trees. — “the biggest chinquapin tree we ever saw, we think is on the Cason old plantation, near Briar Creek Church.  It measures 180 feet in circumference.  Between two hundred and three hundred people can be shaded by it all day long.  It is thought it can furnish over three hundred persons a quart of chinquapins each to eat for one day.  The 180 feet around is not the body but the limbs gracefully hanging to the ground laden with fruit.  It forms a most comfortable tent, and is one of the old pioneer trees of Georgia.” – Warrenton Clipper.”  The Southern Home. Charlotte, North Carolina.  September 23, 1881.

Amazing size and obviously quite appealing place to rest and gather nuts. 

Here are other reports of large chinquapin trees growing in the eastern United State, “On the farm of Messrs. I. L. & E. L. Perry on Haw river, this county, there is a chinquapin tree that measures 12 feet 2 inches in circumference, says the Chatham Record.”  The Progressive Farmer.  Winston- Salem, North Carolina.  July 10, 1894.

“One of OUR Forgotten Resources.  To the Chronicle: — Near Mr. Danial M. Ferguson’s in Moore county, stands a chinquapin tree of the following dimensions: circumference at the ground 14 feet 6 inches; circumference under the first limbs, 9 feet 6 inches; circumference of one limb, 6 feet 9 inches; height of tree, about 92 feet.  How will this do for an exposition switch? Carthage, March 26.”   Weekly State Chronicle.  Raleigh, North Carolina.  March 29, 1884.

“Some chinquapins are as big as good-sized chestnuts, and selection and grafting would doubtless accomplish a great deal with them.”  Fayetteville Weekly Observer.  Fayetteville North Carolina. January 1, 1891.

“Uncle Johnny Styers says he has a chinquapin tree in the corner of his garden which measures 6 feet in circumference at the base, and the branches shade a circle of about 35 feet.  It is about 30 feet high, and yields over a bushel of fruit every year.  This same tree Uncle Alvin Bevil found while good old Uncle Johnny was at church.”  The Daily Pilot.  Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  October 1, 1883.

“Mr. John M. Nuckles of Whitfield County, has growing in his yard a chinquapin tree that measures fifteen feet in circumference at the ground.  Three feet above the ground it measures nine feet.  The tree bears bushels of fruit every year.”  The Atlanta Constitution.  Atlanta, Georgia.  September 13, 1883.

“on Mr. Sidney Houser’s premises, there is a chinquapin tree, ten feet and five inches in circumference, . . .”  Lincoln Progress.  Lincolnton, North Carolina.  June 19, 1880.

Pulling it all together:

After reading these reports, it is plain to see chinquapin “trees” did exist in the eastern United States.   The people understood the difference between a chestnut and a chinquapin even if they didn’t take the time to express how they knew.  These chinquapin trees were noticeably bigger than the common and shrubby Allegheny chinkapin that people were used to.   We have no genetics from those large trees.  There may be some herbarium specimens in some museums but little else of their existence remains save the preserved memories of these newspaper passages.  These historic newspaper references back up what the genetic work indicates for remnant occurrences in similar areas.  Combined they show the Ozark chinquapins (C. ozarkensis) living in the eastern United States in a larger but disconnected range.  They may have been in pockets or scattered around with an uncommon but ubiquitous distribution.   We may never fully know, but we now have clues that could support a larger, former distribution of the Ozark chinquapin.  

Today, we see the range map of the Ozark chinquapin changing, only because we have new information to consider. The tree is not suddenly doing just fine or expanding its range.  It still has a long way to go before it is considered restored to anything close to its former glory.  The map is changing, which means we better understand the tree and its place in the landscape.

When I first heard about Joey Shaw, et.al.’s, DNA work that indicated Ozark chinquapins existed outside of its reported range, my first thought was surprise.  I am not sure I should have been though.  He examined a variety of North American Castanea species.  First, he examined the leaf characteristics according to botanical criteria to species, and then did chloroplast DNA analysis.  He found the Ozark chinquapin typed out completely separate from C. dentata and C. pumila.  One of the more interesting parts was he had what he thought was an Allegheny chinquapin based on leaf characteristics, but genetically typed out as an C. ozarkensis.  One was in the pan handle of Florida and the other was in western portion of Virginia.  Obviously, there is still a lot to learn about both species of chinquapins and the whole genus of Castanea.  So, it should not have been a surprise to find Ozark chinquapins where no one expected them to be.  Each project gives us more and more to consider. 

It’s safe to say we understand more about the Ozark chinquapin today than we did twenty to thirty years ago.  There is still plenty of mystery as we define boundaries of the range and perhaps commonality, but the bottom line is we now know this tree’s roots extend on both sides of the Mississippi River and we need to consider the potential that they ranged sporadically across the Appalachians of the Eastern United States.  We look forward to what new information reveals in the years to come.

Ozark Chinquapin Historic Occurrences 

Ozark Chinquapin Modern Range

Ozark Chinquapin New Modern Range

North Carolina ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’ chinquapin tree