The Ozark chestnut, thought to be long gone, is making a comeback

June 26, 2019, 9:16 a.m.
Ozark chinquapin photographed in Mt. Magazine State Park, Logan County, Arkansas.
Photo: Eric Hunt/Wikimedia Commons

The Ozark chinquapin (Castanea ozarkensis), also called the Ozark chestnut, was once a common species found in the Ozark forests. The tree, which bloomed in late May to early June, was native to mountain regions of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma but could also be found in several other states including parts of Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Native Americans, early settlers and wildlife valued the sweet nuts the trees produced each fall. And the chinquapin's rot-resistant wood was used as lumber for everything from barns and railroad ties to furniture and fence posts, according to The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation. The trees grew as high as 65 feet and were 2 to 3 feet in diameter.

But in the mid-1900s, chestnut blight swept through, decimating the species. Within a decade, the Ozark chinquapins were thought to be wiped out.

The only apparent survivors are "root suckers that re-sprout after the above-ground portion of the tree is killed, and therefore very few seeds are produced to re-populate the species," according to the foundation. There are a few rare trees scattered throughout the species range that somehow did not succumb to the blight.

Hope for restoration

Missouri State Parks naturalist Steve Bost created the foundation in 2007 not long after he first heard of the Ozark chinquapin. He hopes to restore the tree back to its native habitat. Bost and a team of volunteers often drive and hike throughout the area, hoping to identify specimens.

People often email the foundation or rely on helpful tips on the website, also hoping to identify trees. The Ozark chinquapin can easily be mistaken for the Allegheny chinquapin or the Chinese chestnut, for example, which are remarkably similar.

So far, according to National Geographic, Bost has located 45 large Ozark chinquapin trees that have resisted chestnut blight. Most are located in Missouri and Arkansas.

But their specific location is relatively top secret, because conservationists want to protect them.

"If you start asking people in conservation around here where these trees are, they’ll start getting real quiet," Bost tells National Geographic.

In addition to locating trees, Bost and his team are distributing blight-resistant seeds to encourage more trees to grow and they are manually cross-pollinating the trees. So far, none of the 300-plus trees they've planted on test plots over the past 3 to 8 years have shown any signs of blight. They've also mailed tens of thousands of seeds to members and planted more than 900 trees throughout Missouri.

To record a possible Ozark chinquapin sighting or request seeds, contact the foundation.