Castenea dentata & Castenea sativa
Forests are life-sustaining communities defined by trees. Trees are the biggest plants on earth. They provide ecological benefits even as they fend off extinction.
For 40 million years tall chestnut trees (up to 100 feet) were a canopy species with 4 billion trees covering 8.8 million acres of the eastern US. These trees were rot resistant because of their high tannin content. They were almost as big as California Redwoods. Chestnut forests in Appalachia were the basis of the region’s economy. Trees provided lumber for construction, food for wild and domesticated animals, and for humans–chestnuts are the only nut to contain Vitamin C and have a high carbohydrate content. But between 1904 and 1940 the lives of many people changed because of a blight that virtually eliminated the American chestnut.
What has been called the most devastating ecological disaster to the world’s forests wiped out all but 40 trees in the eastern US. (Two challenges to this claim are the on-going human destruction of primeval forests in Amazon Basin and Indonesia, boreal forests in Canada and Russia, and a history of ink disease in European and American chestnut trees predating the blight) The American chestnut’s demise was caused by Cryphonectria parasitica or chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally imported from Japan to the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City. Through the trees own resilience and the efforts of generations of foresters, botanists and tree advocates, American chestnut trees have just barely managed to survive.
Chestnuts are related to the family of beech and oak, but not the horse chestnut, whose nuts are toxic. Today most of the chestnuts in the US are imported from Europe. Although European chestnuts are more resistant to the fungus, when the blight was identified in Genoa, Italy in 1938 it quickly spread to neighboring countries. American and European biologists and forest geneticists are successfully reviving chestnuts by creating hybrids with Asian chestnut trees, and by inoculating trees with hypovirulaent strains of the fungus. European biologists are now studying gall wasps which are affecting chestnut trees in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Chestnuts are known in the US from a Christmas song with lyrics—’chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ But throughout Europe and Asia chestnuts actually are roasted on open fires. Fall chestnut festivals are important agro-and gastro-tourism attractions in Croatia. Kestena is the Croatian word for chestnut, but chestnuts are also called by other names. Maruni is a type of sweet chestnut with two varieties, Branac and Dubenac which grow in Istria and Kvarner. Marunada Lovrana is the name of Lovran, Kvarner’s annual chestnut festival. Since 1973 Marunada Lovrana was celebrated in mid-October during harvest. Chestnuts are ripened or cured in a cool place after harvesting so their sugars have time to develop.
Hrvatska Kostajnica is located in central Croatia on the Una River bordering Bosnia and Herzegovina. Also called Kostajnica, the town’s name is derived from the word kostanj–another word for chestnut which are harvested in surrounding chestnut forests. Kostajnica hosts a traditional chestnut festival where you might find chestnut blossom honey brandy called medica, or kristen parfe, a chestnut parfait made with layered sponge cake, chestnut puree, bavarian cream and chocolate. In cities and towns all over Croatia chestnuts are eaten in the fall through the winter. Sadly, like most of Croatia’s 2020 chestnut festivals, Kostajnica’s was cancelled because of coronavirus.