A Mississippi family farm aims to reintroduce this once plentiful hardwood to the Deep South.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping on your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos …
Even if you’ve never actually roasted a chestnut or eaten one, chances are you’ve sung this popular Christmas carol a time or two. While chestnuts are thought of as holiday food now, they were once one of the most important trees in the forest. Historically reaching up to 98 feet in height, the chestnut tree ranged from southern Ontario to Mississippi, the Atlantic coast and Appalachian Mountains (where one in every four hardwoods was an American chestnut).
In 1904, chestnut blight, a disease caused by an Asian bark fungus, was first noticed in what is now the Bronx Zoo. The blight spread 50 miles a year, and within a few decades killed more than 3 billion chestnut trees. Fast forward to 1950, when a man named James Carpenter discovered a large, living American chestnut in Salem, Ohio. He sent budwood over to a plant breeder in Greensboro, North Carolina, who was able to graft the tree and cross-pollinate it with a mixture of three Chinese chestnuts.
The result of Carpenter’s finding is the Dunstan hybrid chestnut being grown today. Dr. Mark Hennington and his son, Brett’s Mississippi farm has been in the family for five generations. Its current 200 acres were mainly planted with pine trees until last year. “We’re trying to reintegrate a tree species that was a vital component to many U.S. industries, as well as wildlife management and hunting and fishing on land,” Brett says about the 10 chestnut trees he and his dad have planted.
A plentiful bearer of nuts, the chestnut could start producing in as little as five years. Brett grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, but spent summers on the farm located about an hour south of Jackson near Beauregard. The old dairy barn has been converted to an office and garage, and the 1940s homestead provides a place to stay when he and his dad come to town to check on their trees and do a bit of hunting.
Mark initially converted the property into a tree farm about 10 years ago. “We got into the chestnuts because the more you read about them, they were one of the main trees in the eastern part of our country for the longest time,” he says. “We wanted to try to reintroduce those in the Deep South.”
Get a recipe for Chestnut Soup.
About 5 percent of the Hennington farm is an orchard, and Mark has also tried to reintroduce an apple variety called the Cauley that was popular in Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century. He sees what he and his son are doing as part of a trend to take old pieces of land and re-establish them as family farms. While the Henningtons plan to keep their land private, they won’t mind sharing their bounty of apples and chestnuts in the future.
“We may be able to go to the farmers market and sell them if all goes well,” says Mark.
Photo credits, from top: Featured photo by cookbookman17 from Flickr Creative Commons; family farm and chestnut tree in cone provided by Brett Hennington.