By Analiese Paik
I had planned to go apple picking with my family at High Hill Orchard in Meriden, Connecticut for the last few weeks, and finally headed up on an overcast and lightly rainy Saturday. Picking apples is one of the fall family outings we most look forward to and this year we agreed to travel an hour to pick the most eco-friendly apples available in the state. High Hill grows their fruit with organic fertilizers, without herbicides or chemical fertilizers, and with minimal use of pesticides. Their vegetables are grown organically.
After a quick tailgate lunch to fortify us before picking, my youngest started scouting the orchard’s property for things that interest little boys. He soon brought me a prickly casing from a plant to identify. “This is from a chestnut” I said. “Where did you find this?” He said he’d found it on the ground in the walkway near the farm stand. I sent him to the farm stand to see if they had a basket of chestnuts for sale while my husband and I packed up lunch. It could be from a horse chestnut after all.
For years, I’ve been searching for a source of pick-your-own chestnuts in the state and lately became convinced that it was futile. One farm with a stand of chestnuts told me “what grows on the farm stays on the farm” when I asked if I could pick a few. A secret stand of chestnuts I’ve been told about, but have never seen, is supposedly so precious that it’s locked up tight inside a protected piece of land. When asked about the provenance of CT-grown chestnuts I’ve bought over the years, or received as gifts, the answer have been nebulous. “An old tree on a friend of a friend’s estate.” No solid leads. Ever.
“Hey mom, they have chestnuts!” I couldn’t believe my ears and our luck! Farmer Wayne Young was inside the stand and I immediately inquired about the chestnuts. He’s been growing them for 25 years and has only lost two over that time, so clearly they’re blight resistant. That would be the blight that wiped out billions (you read that right) of American chestnuts in their native range along the Eastern U.S. These wild trees were an important part of American life – providing both timber and a source of foraged food – from Maine to Georgia and as far west as the Appalachian mountains.
Young said a friend had grown out some trees from a cultivar purchased at the CT Agricultural Experiment Station and he’d grown his trees from fruit grown on those trees. I wanted to know if they were American chestnuts and he said that he’d always called them Chinese.
My mind refused to believe that they were Chinese so I stubbornly held out hope for an American cultivar. Young and I talked about Sandra L. Anagnostakis’s work at the CT Agricultural Experiment Station to breed blight resistance into American chestnuts and how maybe, his was one of them. Research I’ve done on the American chestnut over the last few years taught me that the leaf shape was one way to identify an American chestnut, and the other was nut size and shape. I made sure to take a lot of pictures.
American chestnuts, castanea dentata, have long, saw toothed leaves and bear small nuts, yielding three to a bur. They are sweeter than any other chestnut and according to the CT Ag Station’s analysis are higher in fiber, protein and fat, but lower in carbohydrates, than any other chestnut variety. Essentially they’re a healthy and delicious food indigenous to the US, but quite rare thanks to the blight.
Wayne Young’s chestnut trees lined both sides of the gravel driveway leading to the apple orchard. Some of their leaves had already begun to shrivel and almost every bur was empty. Young said that tomorrow would be the last public picking day and that the crew would have to gather the chestnuts off the ground to be sold in the farm stand.
The grass was littered with open burs and chestnuts, forcing us to walk slowly and carefully to avoid crushing any nuts. As we eagerly gathered them up, comparing notes on size and appearance, I stopped for a minute to think how we were bringing to life an American ritual – chestnutting – that could have been lost forever. I felt grateful for the work of the plant scientists, farmers and enthusiates.
We managed to find a few open burs on the trees that still held fruit. That is quite a thrill to see and was an excellent teaching tool. Our children learned how chestnuts grow, and why they release their fruit onto the ground. Self propagation!
It began to mist, and our bags were heavy with chestnuts, so we moved on to the apple orchard. If we had blinked, we would have missed the black walnut tree laden with green fruit that looks more like citrus than a nut. Notoriously difficult to open and clean, we gathered just two pieces that had fallen to the ground.
We visited tree after tree – Cortland, Liberty, Macoun, Jona Gold – gathering the largest fruit from each for eating out of hand and baking into tarts and pies. Young had said that his heirloom varietals – Stayman’s Winesap and Northern Spy – wouldn’t be ready until mid October and that they were better after being stored for a while. A reason to return!
Pounds of chestnuts are stored in our refrigerator and I went to bed with dreamy visions of roasting them at Thanksgiving and Christmas (they freeze well) and maybe even making marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) to give as gifts.
After comparing the leaf structure of Young’s trees to online photos of American chestnut leaves and their identifying characteristics, and the size and shape of the nuts, I’m not certain these are American cultivars. The leaves look like a match, but the nuts don’t only because some are more than 1 inch wide (too big for American) and the “hair” doesn’t extend far enough down the nut. The next time I visit, I’ll have to show Young the American Chestnut Foundation’s website and get his opinion. Whatever type they are, they’re very special.
If you are interested in growing chestnuts on your land, please contact the CT Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. This organization is dedicated to restoring the species to its native habitat.
If you have a source for picking chestnuts, please share below. Thanks!
High Hill Orchard
170 Fleming Road
Meriden, CT 06450