How to Harvest Chestnuts

If you're lucky enough to find them, here's how to bring them to your table.

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Chestnuts should be harvested only after they have fallen from the tree.

Chestnuts should be harvested only after they have fallen from the tree.

Chestnuts should be harvested only after they have fallen from the tree.

Chestnuts should be harvested only after they have fallen from the tree.

In the time of the early settlers, the American chestnut tree (Castanea Dentata) was perhaps the most important and valuable tree growing throughout the Eastern United States. The massive trees grew as tall as a hundred feet and up to ten feet in diameter. Fast growing and able to out-compete other trees, the American chestnut accounted for nearly one quarter of the trees grown in pre-20th century Appalachia. Its strong, rot-resistant wood was widely used in construction and, in some cases, a single log cabin could be built from the lumber from one tree.

The iconic nut of the chestnut tree also played an important role in early American life. High in calories and containing nearly twice as much starch as potatoes, the sustenance crop played an important role in frontier survival. Eaten raw, roasted, or ground into meal for baking, Native Americans relied on it both as food and as a medicinal, allegedly used to combat poisons, dysentery and maladies of the heart. Rich in vitamins B, C and E and loaded with protein, the nut continued to be an important part of the Appalachian diet through the 19th century and also served as an inexpensive feed for livestock.  

Then, in 1904, disaster struck, changing the Eastern American landscape, both figuratively and literally.

When the New York Zoological Park (now known as the Bronx Zoo) imported Chinese and Japanese chestnut trees to add to their collection, they brought with them a blight caused by a fungus growing on the bark. While the Chinese chestnut tree adapted to resist its impact, American chestnut trees were devastated. Within decades, over three billion trees were lost.

The blight continues, and although some American chestnut trees can still be found, the blight-susceptible trees are no longer cultivated as they once were. And chestnuts have lost their place as part of everyday American life.

Chinese chestnut trees are still grown for limited commercial use or as shade trees in parks and other larger landscapes. Despite their beauty, they are less common in residential locations, due a sometimes unpleasant odor the blooms produce and the yard litter they create in the fall.

In season from mid-September into November, chestnuts continue as part of the holiday season. Chestnut stuffing is a Thanksgiving favorite and who doesn’t immediately fill in the words “roasting on an open fire” when chestnuts are mentioned?

Selecting and Storing Chestnuts

If you are lucky enough to have access to chestnut trees, be they Chinese or the more elusive American, harvesting the starchy nut can be a fun fall tradition.

Unlike most nuts, chestnuts are harvested once they have fallen from the tree. Housed in a prickly shell that opens to reveal one or several nuts as they become ripe, gloves are a must-have when gathering nuts in their spiny, baseball-sized housing. Select chestnuts that have begun to open, when the nut inside is visible. If the burred hull is green and has not yet opened, allow it to rest until the nut finishes ripening and becomes exposed.

Remove the hull as soon as the chestnuts have been harvested. The perishable nut should then be stored in a plastic container in the refrigerator for up to a month or in the freezer for up to a year.

To release the nut from its shell, use a paring knife to score an “X” into the flat side of the shell. Roast the nut at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the cuts begin to pull away from the nut inside. While still hot, peel away the shell and the papery skin around the nut. Peeled chestnuts have a short shelf life and should be used immediately or stored in an airtight container in the freezer.

Although it can be time consuming to harvest and release these special nuts from their husks and shells, the chestnut is a seasonal treat well worth the effort. Just wear gloves.

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