Chestnuts and fires are synonymous with the season in Christmas song lore. I personally do not know what a chestnut tastes like, let alone the smell of one roasting on an open fire. However, by combining a bit of plant breeding and some tips on procuring firewood, and Illinoisans could recreate this historical experience.

American chestnuts have large, serrated, lustrous, dark green leaves and produce a sweet edible nut, like a “grain on a tree,” in showy, bright green spiny burrs. These fruits are quite attractive on 50- to 150-foot trees that once dominated the landscape.

Michael Dirr, tree guru, says, “This tree, once the queen of the American forest, has been reduced to a memory." Chestnut blight eliminated billions of trees in American forests in the first part of the 20th century, leaving those of us born after the 1950s little knowledge of this native tree.

Plant breeders have been breeding the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut to gain cultivars that are more resistant to blight, while retaining the characteristics of the American chestnut. If you see a chestnut growing in Illinois, it is most likely the Chinese chestnut. This tree co-evolved with the fungus, allowing it to have some resistance.

Chinese chestnut is a smaller tree than the American variety and has reddish tints when the leaves open and long-lasting yellow bronze fall color. Some of these new trees have been planted in forests but it may take many more years to determine if they will make it.

Chestnuts are harvested after they turn brown and shortly after they have fallen off the tree. You may have to go online to order your chestnuts for the holiday season. Michigan State University is breeding chestnuts as a sustainable food crop and working on harvesting methods. Michigan is No. 1 in the United States for chestnut production.

Now that you have chestnuts, you will need an open fire. Here are few tips for procuring firewood.

• Firewood takes about a year to cure and be dry enough to burn. If you see small splitting on the cut ends, then wood has been dried sufficiently.

• Keep firewood off the ground, covered, and stacked so air can circulate throughout.

• Hardwoods like oak are denser than soft woods like maple and therefore burn longer.

Kelly Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.


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