Before we even start this week’s post, let me state clearly: I did not find an Alleghany chinkapin (Castanea pumila). This plant is also known variously as chinqupin or dwarf chestnut, and is closely related to the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) which has been severely decimated by the cleverly-named chestnut blight. Chinkapin grows in the same range as the American chestnut, which includes central Maryland; since chinkapin is more resistant to blight, the smaller trees – and their nuts – should be easier to find.
What I found instead was a pile of discarded branches.
I don’t know who dumped these branches on the roadside. I saw them on a walk to the creek near my home last month. (Yes, it took me a while to write about them… sorry!)
I wasn’t sure what they were at first, but when I saw the burs which looked so much like chestnuts, I had to investigate.
Here’s the thing: none of my foraging books, NOT A ONE OF THEM, had mentioned anything about the chinkapin. It was just me and my Google-fu. Luckily I quickly found my answer.
Once I knew for sure what I had found, I went back to scour the dead branches for any fully developed nuts. Apparently the nuts are even sweeter than regular chestnuts, and unlike chestnuts can be consumed raw. They are not found in stores however, for several reasons. The nuts are small and tend to only have one nut per bur. Oh, and they have an annoying habit of starting to germinate before they even come off the tree. (See for instance the photo about halfway down this page.)
And let me assure you: those burs hurt if try to handle them without gloves! Notice how my sleeve is pulled protectively over my hand in this photo!
Why would someone cut off these branches and dump them like this? I have no idea but I wish they had waited a little longer! Unfortunately the branches appeared to have been cut just as the nuts were starting to ripen. Of all the burs we pried open, only three had fully developed, beautiful round nuts. (The roundness of the nut is another identifying characteristic, as opposed to chestnuts which have one flat side.)
So I did what any forager, gardener and permaculturist would do in my place: I planted them! We’ll see what happens. I tried to treat the nuts like nature – like they had fallen on the forest floor to suffer through the cold, damp winter until the warmth of spring reaches them. Unfortunately I will have to wait for months to know whether it worked!