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.