Various species of chestnut are found in Michigan — naturally in the landscape, in green spaces as ornamentals and also planted in orchards for nut production.
“Chestnut” is a general word that people use to describe two types of completely unrelated trees: Castanea and Aesculus. The true Castanea are the edible chestnuts and include the American chestnut, Chinese chestnut, Japanese chestnut and European chestnut. It also contains a small bush-type chestnut called the chinquapin. They are usually found as orchard trees but do exist as ornamentals.
Enclosed in sharp spine-covered burs, the nuts can be delicious when handled properly. On the other hand, Aesculus is the name of a group of trees that produce inedible nuts generally termed horse chestnuts or buckeyes, depending on the species.
Horse chestnuts and buckeyes have been planted as ornamentals throughout the U.S., but are toxic and have a bad taste if eaten. This article addresses Castanea species, planted for commercial nut production and often referred to as sweet edible chestnuts. Those include Chinese, Korean and European cultivars as well as European/Japanese hybrids.
Chestnut is one of the world’s most popular nut-bearing trees and offers a number of unique qualities. Fresh chestnuts are much lower in fat than other nuts with a carbohydrate content comparable to wheat and rice and also contain vitamin C. Chestnuts also contain twice as much starch as the potato, earning the chestnut tree the nickname “bread tree” in some regions of the world.
The global chestnut market is substantial, with the Food and Agricultural division of the United Nations estimating that China produced just shy of an astounding 4 billion pounds of chestnuts in 2011. Chestnut acreage in the U.S. has increased substantially over the past 30 years, with the largest acreage in Michigan. Production is predicted to continue to increase.
Despite substantial growth of the industry, U.S. production still accounts for a very small portion of the market (less than 1 percent of total world production according to the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service). Domestic production includes 1,200 farms covering just over 3,300 acres. Despite this modest amount of acreage, trees are planted at densities around 90 trees per acre and growers expect yields between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds per acre at peak production.
The value of the chestnut is related to its size. Nuts are primarily sold fresh in the shell. Michigan residents once again can benefit from our region’s agricultural diversity and may find chestnuts at local markets, particularly in areas of the state where tree fruit production is prevalent. There are also promising alternative markets, including gluten-free chestnut flour, which can be purchased online. Additional value-added products are being researched to diversify potential chestnut markets for projected larger future yields.
Remember, chestnuts aren’t just for roasting. Chefs around the world recognize their unique characteristics and produce delicious soups, pastas and spreads using this unique nut. Search online or in cookbooks to see how you can use this local food in your recipes.
Novel crops certainly offer growers the chance to capitalize on new and underserved markets, innovate and diversify, but establishing a new industry and market is also an enormous challenge. If you are considering growing chestnuts or would like more information on the industry, visit chestnuts.msu.edu for current production recommendations and information on any upcoming Michigan State University Extension meetings.
Erin Lizotte is the integrated pest management educator with Michigan State University Extension and works to support the growing Michigan chestnut industry.