Tales Of Our Times: Chestnuts Carry Ancient Stories Of People And The Environment

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water 

Chestnuts have been celebrated through the ages, which does not imply their time is over. Their story is rich in its own right and also adds context for items in the day’s news.

Some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, the world population was maybe one to ten million people much like us, yet who ably met basic needs despite the lack of any writing system. About then, populations began growing staple food crops in many regions of the world. Our knowledge has multiplied many times over from then till now. Even with all that, vastly more lives and livelihoods still rely on crops of wheat, rice, corn, yams, and the like. 

Over time, in distant places for varied reasons, more food crops proved to be trusty staples. Barley, rye, oats, beans, and chestnuts joined the short list of foods that sustain populations. In our folklore, chestnuts now get respect mostly at Christmas, in a warm little song about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

Food “staples” earn their status by showing they are both stable and adaptable. At first glance, “stable” and “adaptable” seem to be clashing virtues. Yet, ways have been worked out to get the best mix of both at the same time. First, staples must be suited for mass production in different climes. Staple foods must be easy to harvest and ship, and then store for long periods. Typically, a staple crop comes in different varieties that have different strengths and weaknesses. 

As far as we can know, chestnuts have grown by themselves in different ways in distant places. So today, varied chestnuts fall from disparate varieties of chestnut trees. The four main species groups are commonly known as American, European, Chinese, and Japanese. Chestnuts from Japanese chestnut trees are three times bigger than Italian chestnuts. For less space, pick a natural chestnut species that grows 10 feet tall. For more wood, pick a natural species that grows 100 feet tall. The same goes for a host of other properties.

Finally, a staple food is also good for many purposes. Chestnuts are true nuts that contain uncommon nutrients. Chestnuts, for instance, make healthy soups, puddings, flour, breads, pastas, pastries, and even beers. History has its surprises: past discoveries show that the Japanese were cultivating chestnuts before they had rice. 

Some quirks of history are useful lessons. The American chestnut is one to know. Millions living in the U.S., and Native Americans before them, were blessed with chestnut forests full of chestnuts and fine wood for craftsmen. It had been so for thousands of years. Eastern U.S. once held three to five billion of the fast-growing chestnut trees. The largest among them stood 100 feet tall and four feet in diameter.

Nearly all of these were killed off by a fungal blight that began to spread in 1904 from some imported Japanese chestnut trees with the infection. The blight was first found in trees on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. 

Only this century have the first signs been seen of regaining some of that native treasure. The varieties of blights evolve. Varieties of chestnut trees provide better resistance to mixed blights. Altogether, the “force” of variety is now helping fight damage to chestnut trees.

Building hybrids is a proven source of remedies to hard problems. Every field has a stash of hard problems that keeps waiting for better remedies.


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