Size Matters

Size Matters

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.

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.

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 three nuts per bur was known to be different from the thicket forming cousin the Allegheny chinkapin (C. pumila) that produced a smaller single nut per bur. The plant seldom reached heights beyond 15-20 feet tall compared to the chestnut that could reach 100 or more feet tall.  Furthermore, the Allegheny leaves were shorter and had a hairy underneath.  Chestnuts had larger burs and a few in a cluster with 2-3 nuts in a bur, whereas the Allegheny had smaller burs in low number clusters with a single nut per bur. 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 to day 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 the large cluster of burs.  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, this may have been 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. 

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 says.”  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.  Ozark 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 been an Ozark chinquapin (C. ozarkensis)?

In this 1884 report from the Chatham Record in North Carolina, a much larger size chinquapin is 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.


After reading these reports from above 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 newspaper reports are consistent with the genetic work that shows the Ozark chinquapins living in the eastern United States.  They may have been in pockets or scattered around with an uncommon but ubiquitous distribution.   We may never fully know, but we now have a much greater understanding that shows this tree, named for its size difference in the Ozarks, is a national treasure for a much larger area.  

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.  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.

It’s safe to say we understand more about the Ozark chinquapin today than we did twenty to thirty years ago.  There is still some 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 even into the Appalachians of the Eastern United States.  We look forward to what new information reveals in the years to come.