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Tree near home may be Allegheny chinquapin

During my childhood I loved to watch Disney’s “Pocahontas.” Every time I watched it, I a got a lecture from my mother. She only allowed me to watch it if I understood the movie was a historically inaccurate fairytale. She emphasized the real and brutal history of Europeans meeting Native Americans.

 Songs from the Disney movie and the accompanied history lessons came back to mind when I came across a purported quote from the records of Captain John Smith, describing a tree I want to learn more about:

 “The Indians have a small fruit growing on little trees, husked like a chestnut, but the fruit most like a very small acorne. This they call Checkinquamins, which they esteem a great daintie,” one source I read attributed to him.

 The chinquapin (or chinkapin) has piqued my interest; I believe one grows near my house. After learning more about the American chestnut, I’ve become even more interested in it.

 Allegheny chinquapins (Castanea pumila) are usually small, shrub-like trees, according to a description from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service planting guide:

 “Chinkapin is a monoecious small tree or large shrub that grows to be 2 to 5 m tall. The twigs are densely hairy (tomentose) when young, becoming shiny brown with densely reddish-hairy buds.

“The leaves are alternate, simple, short-stemmed, prominently veined, oblong with fine pointed teeth or bristles, up to 15 cm long, and tomentose on the lower surface.

 “Male flowers are borne in the leaf axils, elongated, yellow to white, clustered, and have a strong odor. Female flowers are rounder with a diameter up to 3 cm.

 “The fruit is a spiny bur that houses a single nut. Male flowers appear in May and June, female flowers later in the season. Fruits mature in autumn and winter.”

 The guide notes that the Cherokee used the dried leaves to treat fevers, chills, cold sweats and fever blisters.

 The nuts are reported to be sweet and flavorful. One source I read said they taste better than American chestnuts, but are hard to harvest. The difficulty is in the burs — each spiny nut casing holds one small nut, and typically hangs on to it until it’s ripe, at which point it opens and drops the nut.

 Trouble is, they don’t all ripen and drop at once, and wildlife (birds, deer, bears and other animals) love the nuts too and will eat them even before the nuts fall.

 This probably wasn’t such a problem in centuries past. The chinquapin has moderate resistance to chestnut blight, but its numbers are dwindling. It is also susceptible to root rot. When it grew more prolifically, there were probably enough nuts to go around.

 Another site I found had a recipe for the tea that the USDA document mentioned, along with a recipe for chinquapin bread (attributing it to the Cherokees).

 This recipe called for boiling the hulled nuts before peeling and boiling again with sugar, then mixing with cornmeal, soda, salt and water to make a stiff dough. The instructions then said to wrap the dough in scalded hickory leaves or corn blades and simmer in water for an hour.

 After a closer inspection of the tree near my house, I wonder if it could in fact be a chestnut tree rather than a chinquapin. Either way, in the next few weeks as the nuts ripen you’ll find me standing beneath it, humming “paint with all the colors of the wind,” reminded about the heartbreaking history of this land, and trying to beat the wildlife to some of those nuts.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, exploring possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.