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A beautiful tree, a beautiful nut
General News · 7th December 2022
Carrie Saxifrage
We have a grove of a dozen mature chestnut trees which we planted 25 years ago. Most are a hybrid variety called "Paragon" which is a cross between North American and European species (Castanea sativa x dentata). We also have a couple of "Layeroka" which is a hybrid cross between European and Chinese species (Castanea mollissima x sativa). These were grafted trees purchased from a professional chestnut grower in the lower mainland of B.C. They are blight resistant, not blight immune.

Dozens of offspring from fallen nuts are coming up in our grove. Some of these are available for transplanting as described below. These seedlings, it should be noted, are a unknown mix of genes from our grafted hybrid trees. A few seedlings from our orchard have been planted out over the years to the point where they are producing chestnuts. And so far the chestnuts on these transplanted seedlings have been similar in size and taste to those on their parents. But, as with the seedling of any hybrid, the results can vary.

To encourage the planting of chestnut trees across the island as a food security strategy, we have arranged with Whitney Vanderleest to dig trees for transplanting by people who want them. To cover her time and effort, she will be charging $30/tree for large trees or for two small trees, sliding scale available. She is a permaculture consultant who can also help you get them planted in the ground and protected at an additional cost. To get on her list, email

Chestnuts seem like a great addition to island food security. Chestnuts have been a staple in the diet for people all over the world for thousands of years. They have been called “the bread tree.” Their nutritional makeup is similar to brown rice but with twice the protein. The protein is very high quality, with an amino acid balance similar to milk or eggs. They grow fast, sequester carbon and don’t require annual tillage of the soil. The trees can bear crops for hundreds of years.

This year, we harvested about six five-gallon buckets full, with plenty left over for wildlife - jays, squirrels and raccoons shared our harvest.

About 40 of our chestnut seedlings were planted out last year around the island with good, but not perfect, success. They grow large, prefer sun and require fencing. The larger transplants (about six feet tall) need more careful watering in their first summer but are likely to bear nuts sooner. Our trees took about six years to start bearing. Now, it seems like we get more and bigger chestnuts every year. The trees are so tall that we wait for a windstorm to blow them down. Then we gather the nuts off the ground.

Chestnuts are delicious, like sweet, rich potatoes or a self-made dumpling. Mostly, we roast peeled chestnuts with oil and salt. They are also wonderful in soups and casseroles (like potatoes) and, of course, roasted by an open fire.

For storage, we halve and peel the nuts (while watching “Nutflix”) and put them in ziplocks in the freezer. This year we made a lot of flour, which is a lot of work. It makes amazing crepes, biscuits, cakes and pizza dough. To make flour, we chop the peeled nuts in a Cuisinart and then a food dryer until the mash is dry enough to grind in a grain grinder. We store the flour in our cold pantry.

Chestnut trees grow a valuable, rot resistant wood which mills well and can be easily split for fencing and posts. They coppice easily.

So why aren’t chestnuts part of our culture?

Eastern North America once had huge chestnut forests which provided the primary food for most wildlife – bear, deer, elk, squirrel, the huge flocks of turkeys and Passenger Pigeons. Every few years, the trees produced massively and in synchrony and then reduced their production in the intervening years, a strategy to ensure not all were eaten. Early accounts described the nuts as knee-deep under the trees during mast years!

The Chestnut Blight, which arrived in NYC from China in 1904, decimated 30 million acres of chestnut forests in 40 years. The Chestnut Blight was easily the greatest ecological disaster in North American history, though it is almost forgotten today. As a result, North America is the only place in the world that can grow chestnuts but does not have an extensive chestnut industry.

While most of us did not grow up with chestnuts as part of our food culture, if we plant them now we could have a perennial source of abundant, delicious and nutritious food for a more food-resilient community.

For more interesting chestnut information, see the attached pdf.