What is a Chestnut?
Chestnuts are trees (and nuts) in the beech family, which also contains the oaks. They have been cultivated from antiquity in the Orient and Europe, with the result that Chinese, Japanese, and European chestnut nuts are much larger than wild nuts. In addition, the Oriental trees tend to be small orchard trees, while the European trees are still large forest trees suitable for timber. The American chestnut tree was essentially wiped out by a fungus in the first half of the 20th century. It was also a big forest tree, with small, sweet nuts.
Chestnuts are NOT the same thing as horse chestnuts or buckeyes! They belong to their own family of trees. Basically, horse chestnuts and buckeyes are as closely related to true chestnuts as bats are to giraffes. If you are familiar with European literature, there are endless opportunities for confusion. In England, "chestnut" means a horse chestnut; true chestnuts are called "sweet chestnut" or "Spanish chestnut". The confusion continues in other European languages, with multiple names for trees, nuts, wild vs. domestic, etc. Horse chestnuts and buckeyes are generally NOT edible. Every year, a few folks get hospitalized for trying to stuff a turkey with buckeyes. Usually, the price is only a whopping bellyache, but more serious illness does happen.
What are chestnuts good for?
Chestnuts are an unusually useful tree and possibly a very important crop in the near future. The wood is attractive and lighter than oak but strong for its weight. It also works unusually well, with the only fault being a tendency to split easily (which is great if you're making shingles or rails, but not so hot for furniture). It's as rot resistant as redwood or cedar and has fibers that are quite desirable for paper making. The bark and heartwood used to be the US's single most important source of tannic acid. The forest trees grow very straight and fast (30% faster than oaks), and when cut down, they grow back from the crown of the existing root system very strongly. In the East, most of the first generation of telegraph poles were chestnut.
The nuts are unlike other nuts in that they are very low in oil (2%). They spoil easily when fresh but keep for years if dried properly. They have excellent protein, similar to both beans and maize. Besides the fresh chestnut uses of roasting and going into stuffing, dried chestnuts can be ground for flour and used in bread and pasta. In Europe and Japan, candied chestnuts known as marrons glaces are a great delicacy, selling for $14/lb or more. Both trees and nuts can also be used for animal feed. Importantly, even wild chestnut trees tend to have good nut crops every year, unlike oaks and walnuts, which tend to have some years of heavy production ("mast" years) mixed with some years of very small crops.
What about chestnut blight?
Chestnut Blight is a fungus native to the Orient, imported into North America around 1900 and from here to Europe a few years later. It kills 99.999% of pure American chestnut trees. People still argue about how deadly it is to the European species—more of their trees survive, in any case. The few large American chestnut trees that survive are deformed, their wood badly damaged by the disease. Europe still has a chestnut production industry, in spite of the blight. If you buy chestnuts in a regular grocery store, chances are 99/100 that the nuts are from Italy.
Chinese and other Oriental chestnuts are essentially resistant to or tolerant of the fungus. A few trees may die or be damaged, but most find the disease a minor annoyance. There is no hope the disease will "go away". It also grows on oaks, oak bark, and even in the forest litter, since it is not a true parasite, so there are plenty of other places for it to grow and hide aside from chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation (of which our CEO was the founding President) is working to move the disease resistance of the Oriental species into true American chestnuts, and their project is working. At Badgersett, we are also breeding our Hybrid Chestnuts for blight resistance.