Castanea mollissima Blume
Family: Fagaceae (Beech)
The American Chestnut, once considered a large tree with a massive trunk and a broad crown, has been reduced to a small tree that sprouts from the base of a larger dead tree. It reaches a height of about 20 feet with a trunk diameter of six to eight inches. The preferred habitat is moist upland soils in mixed forests. Distribution is throughout the Escambia region. The large chestnut tree we see most often is the Chinese Chestnut pictured above.
The leaf is four to eight inches long; three inches wide; narrowly oblong, long-pointed with many straight parallel side veins. Each vein ends in a curved tooth. The leaf color is shiny yellow-green above and paler green below with a few downy hairs. Leaf stalks are short.
Flowers appear in early summer. There will be many whitish male flowers in upright catkins, with a few small female flowers beneath. Each flower is bordered by narrow greenish scales that appear at the base of the male catkins.
Fruit is a large bur covered with many stout spines. The burs mature in the autumn, splitting open along three or four lines, exposing the chestnuts. The individual nut is broadly egg-shaped, becoming shiny dark brown, flattened and pointed. The fruits are edible and delicious.
The chestnut was once the great pride of the eastern American forest trees, but its presence then is only a memory today. Around 1906 a blight caused by the fungus Endothia parasitica attacked the trees located along the Atlantic seaboard. The blight caused a fatal bark disease that spread through the forests. The spores were carried from tree to tree by the wind, thus preventing any reasonable way to stop its spread. The fungus has no intermediate host and during the course of a few decades it covered the entire range of the chestnut leaving skeletons of the great trees in its path.
The American Chestnut was a large tree, sometimes attaining a height of 100 feet or more with a trunk diameter of four to eight feet. In the open, it developed massive and wide-spreading branches and a deep broad rounded crown. It grew everywhere on well-drained soils, from the valleys to the rocky ridges; high and low elevations. It sprouted freely from the roots, and today the sprouts are commonly seen in our forests. Occasionally they grow to 15-20 feet, and sometimes produce a few fruits, but the blight continues to kill them repeatedly. Alas, for the most part North America relies heavily on Asian strains tended in the domestic landscape to produce the abundant, sweet harvest we enjoy so much during the holiday season.