Name

Chestnut Tree

Latin

Castanea sativa

Secret Meaning

Do me justice, Luxury

Alternative Names:

Bread tree, Sardian nut, Jupiter's nut, husked nut, Spanish chestnut

Facts & Folkore:

Chestnuts have been grown by humans since about 2000 BCE and were carried by the armies of Alexander the Great as well as the later Roman armies. There are several varieties of Chestnuts, and different culinary traditions have developed around them.

In the Christian tradition, these starchy nuts are given to the poor as a symbol of sustenance on the Feast of Saint Martin and are also traditionally eaten on Saint Simon's Day in Tuscany. On the island of Corsica, where chestnuts feature prominently in the everyday cuisine, an old tradition says to prepare 22 different dishes from chestnuts and serve them at a wedding feast.

Chestnuts remain an important food crop in China, Japan, and southern Europe, where cooks often grind them into a meal for breadmaking and sweet cakes, thus giving rise to the nickname of "bread tree." In Europe, Asia, and Africa, chestnuts often substitute for potatoes in everyday dishes. Chestnuts can also be pureed into soups, sauteed and used to top pasta, added to casseroles, baked into desserts, and folded into ice cream.

The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) once dominated the eastern half of the U.S. with up to 4 billion trees! . Because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes, the tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes. The trees could live for 1,000 years and usually did not begin to produce fruit until they reached an age of 40 years old. The much valued lumber was used wherever strength and rot-resistance was needed.

In colonial America, chestnut was a preferred species for log cabins, especially the bottom rot-prone foundation logs. Later posts, poles, flooring, and railroad ties were all made from chestnut lumber.

The edible nut was also a significant contributor to the rural economy. Hogs and cattle were often fattened for market by allowing them to forage in chestnut-dominated forests. Chestnut ripening coincided with the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season, and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree.

In 1904, a gardener noticed that a chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park seemed to be suffering from a mysterious blight. The disease was ultimately traced back to a variety of Asian chestnut that had been imported to Long Island, but by then it was too late. The blight spread, and within 40 years, nearly every American chestnut was affected. Although it is considered functionally extinct, the blight fungus does not kill the tree’s root system underground. The American chestnut has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites, but inevitably succumb to the blight and die back to the ground. Efforts to revive this species are ongoing.

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