History of the Chestnut


Chestnuts have had a long history of cultivation in Europe. During Roman times, the chestnut was the basis of a vital economy in the Mediterranean Basin as well as rural and "Gathering Chestnuts" mountainous areas of Southern Europe. Chestnuts were a reliable food source. For several hundred years, Southern Europe in areas such as the Italian and Swiss Alps, was called the "Chestnut Civilization."

     The chestnut was referred to as the "bread tree." Cultivated forms of chestnuts included hundreds of varieties selected for specific qualities for uses as candying,
roasting, boiling, drying, flour and butter. The native habitat of the Chestnut extended throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is found in China, Korea, Japan, Southern Europe and North America. The entire Eastern half of the US was once covered with wild chestnut trees.  

     The American Indian relied on the Chestnut as a dietary staple. And, during the colonization of America, the native chestnut was the premier tree, providing wood for railroad ties, house framing, barns, fences and fuel. The American Chestnut was an important source of tannin for leather processing. Of course, the American Chestnut also provided highly palatable nuts for eating. Chestnut trees were once so numerous along the Eastern forests of the US that it is said a squirrel could jump from chestnut tree to chestnut tree all the way from Georgia to New York without ever touching the ground. American Chestnuts served as a year-round source of food for humans and animals.



     Chestnuts have a remarkable nutritional composition that sets them apart from other nuts and makes them an outstanding food source, which can be a dietary staple. The nuts are about 50% water when fresh, which makes them highly perishable. They contain complex carbohydrate, are very low in fat at about 1%, have reasonable quantities of vitamin C and potassium, are very low in sodium and are free of gluten, oil and cholesterol. The protein is high quality, and is easily assimilated by the human body.



     The American chestnut was one of the most important trees in the eastern hardwood forests until the late nineteenth century, making up to 25 percent of the forest. It was used for virtually everything - telegraph poles, railroad ties, heavy construction, shingles, panelling, fine furniture, musical instruments and even pulp and plywood. In addition, the chestnut was America's major source of tannin for tanning leather. However, by 1950, the chestnut was essentially eliminated as a forest tree in North America, having succumbed to chestnut blight (apparently brought in from Oriental varieties of chestnuts), of the late 1800's. Efforts are now being taken to re-introduce a disease resistant variety of American Chestnut.