American chestnut (Castanea dentata [Marsh.] Borkh.) in Moscow
Byull. GBS 188, pages 10–12, Moscow, Nauka, 2004
Translated by Irina Kadis
The author could not locate any information regarding cultivation of
the species in Moscow or its surroundings. In the Trees and Shrubs of the
USSR, Sokolov [1: 415] reported that Castanea dentata
was “rare in cultivation in the USSR, known to be successfully
cultivated in Mtsensk District (Oryol Oblast) and also in the Park of the
Forest Engineering Academy in Leningrad, where a tree once reached 8
meters tall and the age of 30, yet perished during the cold winter of
1939/1940.” No further detail was provided as regards concrete location or
source of information for the case in Mtsensk.
According to the description produced by Alfred Rehder back in the
first half of the 20th century [2: 150], this tree, which can reach 30
meters in height, is distributed from southern Maine to Michigan, south to
Missouri and Alabama, and has been in cultivation since 1800’s. It was planted
as fruit trees for the large edible nuts, as an ornamental – for
its large handsome leaves and attractive staminate catkins, and also for the wood, which is very
durable in soil.
In 1976 I was a participant in the first Soviet-American Expedition
in the United States. In three weeks we visited a number of interesting
localities in the [eastern and] northeastern states. In Virginia, we were
shown a 19-century farmstead preserved as a historical monument, where
buildings were made of chestnut trunks and fences consisted of huge logs
split in halves — also of American chestnut. It was only once that we were
shown a solitary chestnut tree of root sprout origin. Our American
colleagues could not point out a single mature fruiting tree of American
chestnut in the course of the trip. Instead they told us a sad story.
Prior to about 1930, American chestnut had been one of the most important
dominant trees in eastern North America; however, by 1930 most populations
were nearly eliminated by the introduced blight Cryphonectria
parasitica. While chestnuts still exist in a number of places,
they are, for the most part, root sprouts nearly never producing viable
seed. Practically all known wild populations of C.
dentata have contracted the parasitic fungus.
The situation has not changed up until now . More than half a
century of attempts to overcome the blight have not been successful. Exotic
chestnut species are now cultivated in the United States, most often the
Chinese C. mollissima Blume, a species particularly
resistant to the fungus. In fact the blight had been introduced to the
United States back in the 80–90’s of the 19th century with imported
C. mollissima .
At the start of July 1986, I participated in the Main Botanical
Garden (GBS) expedition. In the Town of Michurinsk, we visited a number of
institutions dedicated to I.V. Michurin and bearing his name:
a college, scientific research institute, independent research
laboratory, and finally Muchurin’s homestead, now a museum. The purpose of
our visit was to find any physical evidence of Michurin’s work on the
cultivated chokeberry, which I then described as a distinct species
Aronia mitschurinii . However, no one there could
provide any valuable data. The garden in Michurin’s estate did not impress
me, either. For example, English walnuts and apricots, which then
interested us the most, were not in any way better than the ones grown in
It looked like the visit to Michurinsk was not yielding any valuable
results. Yet when we where already leaving, right at the exit I spotted a
group of true chestnuts. Quite healthy-looking trees, about 6 m tall and
15-18 cm in trunk diameter, they were bespeckled with staminate catkins
ready to open. These trees had been reported by Sokolov  as
. Due to unlikeliness of such a
this note was
never acknowledged by dendrologists. The trees turned out to be C.
, and the fact that they were successfully grown in
made me think of a trial planting in Moscow.
In the fall of 1988, thanks to the kind help of A.A. Popov, I
received 25 ripe nuts, which I immediately sowed (on October 5) in two
different nurseries on the GBS grounds, covering them with spruce
branches. At the end of May/start of June 1989, they produced seven
seedlings. During the subsequent years, the saplings grew quickly and
overwintered fairly well, although their leader buds were frequently frost
bitten. They produce foliage in the first half of May and start shedding
their leaves in mid-October, the foliage becoming pale yellow, never
exhibiting any bright colors.
In Michurinsk, there was no fruiting in 1989, and from that time on I lost contacts and
never heard about the fate of the chestnut trees there.
Even at a very young age, the 4-5-year-old saplings received much
attention from GBS patrons. To be on the safe side, I never disclosed
their true identity, not even to the staff, telling everyone these were
some oaks. Due to my vigilance, only four of them ended up stolen, and the
other three remained. Starting from the age 8, they began producing
staminate catkins, and in 2003 two of them yielded bisexual catkins on the
uppermost twigs. Unfortunately, these were overlooked, and the ripening of
seed was missed. The only evidence that remained was dry cupule leftovers.
Searches under the trees did not yield any nuts.
The young trees are now 15 years old. Two of them are about 7 m tall
and 10 cm in trunk diameter; a third tree (one at a different nursery) is
5 m tall, its trunk 7 cm in diameter.
Making an effort for introducing C. dentata into cultivation in
temperate European Russia appears plausible to me. It is quite probable
that our climate would not be much favorable for the blight. Not only
could we produce our own nuts then, but help preserving the American
chestnut as a species.
1. Sokolov, S.Ya. 1951. [The genus
Castanea.] In: [Trees and Shrubs of the USSR], vol. 2. Moscow–Leningrad.
USSR Academy of Sciences Publishers. Pp. 405–419. In Russian.
2. Rehder, A. 1940 (Reprint 1949).
Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs Hardy in North America. N.Y.,
3. Nixon, K.C. 1997. Castanea. In: Flora
of North America, vol. 3. Oxford University Press. P. 439–442.
4. Skvortsov, A.K., Maitulina Yu.K.
1982. [Cultivated black chokeberry: differences from wild ancestors.]
Byull. GBS 126: 35–40. In Russian.
20 February 2020