Chinquapin, an Uncommon but Flavorful Treat

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Chinquapin (Castanea pumila) is a species of tree native to midwest and southeastern states, particularly North and South Carolina and also Georgia. You may also know it by the names, dwarf chestnut, allegheny chinquapin or simply American chinquapin. As its other name suggests, chinquapin is a species of chestnut, bearing small nuts that are rounder in shape.

You’ll tend to find it growing on high ground, with particularly sandy, very well draining soils. You’ll also often find it growing in the company of pecan trees and also oak.

Leaves and flowers of Chiquapin (Castanea pumila)
Leaves and flowers of Chiquapin (Castanea pumila) (Photo by Michael Ellis on Wikimedia Commons)

The chinquapin is a small tree, reaching only a third of the height (10m) of its Northern relative the American chesnut (Castanea dentata). The leaves are simple, serrated, lance shapes, no longer than 15cm. When it flowers in spring, small catkin like stalks emerge from the leaf joints. Both female and male flowers can be found on the tree. The fruits which form after flowering are small spiny spheres, which develop the shiny brown chinquapin nut within.

Edible parts and other uses

The nut is the only edible part of the chinquapin tree, as the leaves and bark contain toxic tannins. The nut can be roasted much like the chestnut, and eaten whole as a snack. Roasting enhances the slightly chocolatey flavoring of the nut. To enhance the sweetness of the nut, it is often recommended to hang the nuts in a porous bag, to allow them to dry and for the starches to break down into sugars.

Native Americans recognised the importance of chinquapin nuts, incorporating them into their seasonal food diet.

The wood is very durable, and is often utilised for creating wood products and even fencing. However due to its small size, other hardwoods tend to be more favorable.

Chinquapin Nuts
Chinquapin Nuts (Photo by Steve Hurst on Wikimedia Commons)

Cautions

The nuts of the chinquapin are perfectly safe to consume. However like many foods, they should be eaten in moderation. The only lookalikes for the chinquapin, are the chestnut and horse chestnut trees, both having spiny burrs. The chestnut is also perfectly edible, however the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is not. They can usually be identified by shape and color of the nut, and also the reduction in the number of spines on the burr of a horse chestnut.

Foraging

The tree reaches fruiting maturity at around 4 years old, so don’t be surprised if you encounter a few young trees which don’t seem to hold any fruits.

The chinquapin fruits begin to ripen in the fall, splitting open to reveal the nut within. Small mammals and birds are also particularly fond of the nuts, so you will need to time your foraging adventure correctly to get the best yield! Any nuts out of reach can sometimes be prompted with a small shake of the tree. However the chinquapin tree is sadly on the endangered species list, so foraging must be enacted very responsibly. 

Chinquapin burrs beginning to ripen
Chinquapin burrs beginning to ripen (Castanea pumila) (Photo by Bonnie Dalzell on Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know…

Chinquapins can also be found on the west coast, from southern California, up to Washington. Inhabiting similar mountainous slopes two species of chinquapins from a different genus can be found here, the golden chinquapin (Chrysolepis chrysophylla) and also the bush chinquapin (Chrysolepis sempervirens).

Conclusion

A tree that has somewhat faded into history, but is slowly re-emerging onto the radar as a nutritious wild food. For those wishing to have a supply of nuts closer to home, a chinquapin is a great option to grow at home in a smaller garden due to its smaller size. Their small population numbers were caused by the spread of chestnut blight, killing off a great number of American chestnuts, as well as denting the dwarf chestnut population. This means that foraging must be kept to a minimum, to ensure population sizes can replenish and grow.

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Written by Hannah Sweet
Hannah is a freelance writer and graphic designer from the UK. With a penchant for travelling, photography and all things botanical, she enjoys writing about a wealth of topics and issues, from conservation and slow living, to design and travel. Learn more about her writing and design services on Upwork.com

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