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American chestnut makes a comeback

Before you can roast them by a fire, there's plenty of work to do

Linda Black walks down the orchard path outside her back door with her head bent, eyes scanning the dirt and scant grass.

For what seems like the hundredth time before noon on this mid-September day, she stoops to scoop up smooth, dark brown chestnuts that fell earlier that morning or the night before. Amid the rolling hills and bluffs between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, a stiff breeze brings chestnuts down like a welcome rain.

Harvest season has begun.

Home-grown chestnuts will be roasted this holiday season, thanks to people like Black and her husband, Dale, who are bringing back a tree that was once an important part of the landscape.

More than a century ago, American chestnut trees were plentiful and valued not only for their nuts - a food source for man and wildlife - but also for rot-resistant wood and tannins used to process leather.

However, an invasive disease called chestnut blight, believed to have been introduced in 1904 through imported Asian trees, destroyed virtually all the chestnuts by the 1950s.

But growers in several states have been working for the last few decades to re-establish the chestnut.

Among them are the Blacks, who own the Chestnut Ridge of Pike County Orchard near Rockport, Illinois, one of a handful of chestnut orchards in the state. Last year, gathering their crop primarily by hand, they collected more than 3, 719 kilograms of chestnuts over the six-week fall harvest - their best ever.

This season, armed with newly acquired harvesting equipment, they expect to match that total despite the summer's wicked drought.

"We didn't know what to expect this year after the drought, but ... the size of the nuts looks really good," said Linda. "I think the chestnut trees adapt to the conditions they have and put everything they have into making good chestnuts."

Before the blight, chestnut trees grew 30 metres tall in forests primarily in the East but also reaching near southeastern Illinois, said Dennis Fulbright, a professor of plant pathology at Michigan State University. Now chestnuts are largely an orchard crop, often a hybrid. Attempts to resurrect the chestnuts started soon after the blight and took flight in the 1970s, Fulbright said. U.S. production is increasing, but by worldwide standards, it is still minimal.

In Southern Ontario, the northern range of the American chestnut forests, the Canadian Chestnut Council has a recovery plan for the trees in that area.

The Blacks started their orchard in 2001 with 100 seedlings. The orchard, now with 3,000 trees, takes up 12 hectares of the Black's 65hectare farm and is planted in Dunstan chestnuts, a blight-resistant Chinese-American combination.

Those first seedlings planted years ago are now 8 to 9 metres tall and last year alone yielded 2,700 pounds of chestnuts. Dale estimates that at maturity (roughly 20 years old), the trees will reach about 75 feet and yield about 50 pounds each.

Generally there are three golden nuts inside a chestnut burr, nestled side-by-side in what feels like a bed of velvet. Besides tasting good, they are highly nutritious. Typically, as the nuts dry, they fall from the burr onto the ground, but sometimes the burrs fall with the nuts still in them.

Chestnuts are gluten free and have the lowest fat content of any edible nut. When raw, they have the texture of a crunchy apple that is not quite ripe, and when roasted, they are more like a firm potato.