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A. J. Hendershott
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A. J. Hendershott
Ozark chinquapin nuts are tasty and high in nutrition. They lack the bitter taste of acorns and have more protein and carbohydrates than any acorn in the Ozarks.
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A. J. Hendershott
Volunteers cross-pollinate blight-resistant trees and place bags to prevent competing pollen from reaching the female flowers.
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A. J. Hendershott
Ozark chinquapins bloom in May or June when the threat of frost is well past. At a distance, a tree in bloom may look like it is covered in snow.
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A. J. Hendershott
Range maps of the Ozark chinquapin show the trees aremostly found today in Southwest Missouri, NorthwestArkansas, and the eastern portion of Oklahoma.
By A. J. Hendershott
“You are on a ghost hunt.”
These were frank words for Steve Bost to hear. It wasn’t exactly what he expected, either. Steve, a park naturalist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, has always been passionate about the Ozarks. So when he found out about the Ozark chinquapin, a tree related to the American chestnut, he wanted to find some. He was told by a more experienced naturalist that the trees didn’t exist anymore. It would have been disheartening if he had believed it.
Steve has discovered Ozark chinquapin trees in numerous places throughout the Ozarks and has founded the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation with a mission to keep the trees from vanishing forever. Each remaining tree is a precious resource for the future of the species. Steve has no intention of letting this tree pass quietly into the night.
Ozark chinquapins share more than chestnut family resemblances. With the same leaf shape and spiny burrs around the nuts, Ozark chinquapins also share the same Achilles heel: the Chinese chestnut blight. This villainous fungus was introduced near New York before World War I. By the middle of the century, it had spread from the East Coast to the Great Plains. Every chestnut relative was touched by its grip. This decimated the native chestnut clan in the eastern United States, including the Ozark chinquapin.
Today, the chinquapin is a faded memory, its uses and former high esteem a mere apparition. The tree’s presence is slipping from the landscape, leaving only decay-defiant trunks. It was only a few generations ago that these nut-producing trees were highly sought after and distributed throughout the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. The passing of the Ozark chinquapin has been surprisingly quiet and unceremonious except as noted by those who remember its glory days.
Darrell Williams has memories of the Ozark chinquapin near Verona, Missouri. There, he used to find and make use of the tasty chinquapin nuts.
“Nuts don’t lie under a tree for very long because little mice and squirrels get them. They’re sweeter than any pecan,” he says with a chuckle as if he had one just yesterday.
Oak acorns are common forest nuts, and all sport a bitter-tasting substance known as tannin. The marble-sized chinquapin seed resembles an acorn but lacks the acorn cap and has low concentrations of tannins. This, combined with high sugar content, produces a pleasant flavor.
“We used to hunt for chinquapins when I was a kid,” Darrell says. “They covered the ground. The burrs generally open up enough for the nut to fall out. If the burr didn’t open, you’d have to stomp them with your foot and that involved shoes. If a good wind came by or you shook the tree, the ground would just be covered with chinquapins. You might get an acorn crop like this occasionally but not very often. If you shook a chinquapin, you could gather all you wanted without raking the leaves back.”
Paul Corbin was born in 1914 and grew up in southern Bollinger County. He remembers the spiny-burred chinquapin.
“We had one that leaned over in the school yard of the old Step School on Cato Slough,” Paul says. “We used to eat chinquapins at recess. They were rather prolific. You could pick them up by the handful. They would just cover the ground, and you could crack them with your teeth.”
The chinquapin nut is highly nutritious, too. According to a laboratory evaluation done by SGS North America, a company that performs chemical and nutritional analysis of food, nuts from the chinquapin tree have high percentages of protein and carbohydrates. When compared to oak acorns or the American chestnut, the Ozark chinquapin’s nut comes out on top.
“That makes the chinquapin king of the Ozark Mountains,” Steve says. “But chinquapin importance doesn’t stop there. They were reliable and prolific nut producers.”
Steve found that an average-sized white oak in an average year could produce one thousand acorns. In a good year, that same tree would produce two thousand nuts.
“The American chestnut left them all in the dust by producing six thousand nuts from the same size tree,” Steve says. “Chinquapin trees are slightly smaller than chestnuts and only hold one nut in their husk instead of three like the chestnut. However, the Ozark chinquapin will produce four to sixteen nut clusters on the ends of a branch. I think if it had good pollination, it would actually produce more nuts per same size tree because you have more nuts produced per branch. ”
Another leg up for the chinquapins is the timing of their pale white blooms. Oaks bloom in March and April when ill-timed frosts can damage blooms and the resulting acorn crop. Chinquapins bloom in May, when frost isn’t a threat, which means they can produce a more reliable crop of nuts every year.
“You have a tree that produces one of the most nutritious and tasty nuts available to the Ozarks, produces a lot of them, and is reliable every year. They were important to people and wildlife,” Steve says.
When Darrell was just a boy, the chinquapins were highly sought after.
“We’d take buckets with us chinquapin hunting,” he says. “Everyone who was young had chores back then, so you’d get a pocket full of chinquapins and eat chinquapins while you did your chores.”
But there is a trick to storing the nuts.
“Once you collect them, keep the nuts in a jar with a lid, or they’ll get wormy. I guess something lays eggs in the bloom,” Darrell says.
Settlers found the lumber virtuous. Chinquapin lumber did not warp, had a dark appearance, and glued together like a dream. It was used to make furniture such as chests and tables. The Ozark hills were filled with music born of dulcimers, violins, and guitars crafted of Ozark chinquapin wood. This wood was also rot-resistant and often used for the construction of split rail fences, coffins, shingles, and siding for buildings.
Then the blight came to slay the chinquapin. The tree was once as common as an ash tree is today, but it was more restricted in distribution.
Today, less than ninety-nine percent of the early twentieth-century population of Ozark chinquapins survives.
These are rare trees, but the decay-resistant wood left clues for savvy ecologists such as Steve.
Days of Resurrection
Steve’s ghost hunt was facilitated by the presence of the trees’ grayish-white corpses strewn about the forest. “The trunks have a distinctive look about them,” he says. “There is a certain twist and color with down-turned limbs that give it away.”
Those dead trunks give Steve a reason to slow down and inspect the landscape.
“Sometimes a tree that had its main trunk killed by the blight will send up sprouts that still live. Some of those even produce nuts,” Steve says.
There may be hope yet for the tree.
“If a group of trees has been impacted by the blight with one that seems to be doing fine, that is a significant find,” he says. “It stands to reason there may be a genetic trait for blight resistance that might be passed on to the offspring of such a tree.”
Steve formed the nonprofit Ozark Chinquapin Foundation to repopulate the species. Foundation members and cooperators search for surviving trees that are blight-resistant, collect pollen from those trees, perform pollination crosses with other blight-resistant trees, collect resulting nuts, and distribute them to places where they have the best chance for survival.
“One amazing thing about all this is the remarkable people who have sacrificed unselfishly their time and efforts to help make all of this happen,” Steve says. “Without that support, none of this would be possible.”
The potential benefits of population restoration include a good source of food and lumber, but there is something more at play for Steve.
“This is an ecological wrong, and we want to put it right.” Darrell believes the quest for chinquapin restoration is valuable for another reason.
“For a kid to go out chinquapin hunting, it is worth more than what they are doing now,” he says. “They have no idea what they’re missing.”
Steve hopes the ghost tree will again cover the Ozarks as a living, contributing resident, even if it is a slow process.
“I feel like Johnny Appleseed telling people about this tree and giving out seeds, and no one knew what the apple was.”
Become a member of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation or report a tree at www.ozarkchinquapin.com.