Salicicola Translations

A.K. Skvortsov

In February 2020, botanists in Russia and colleagues around the world have been celebrating the 100th birthday of the renown Russian botanist Alexey Skvortsov. A botanical conference in his memory was taking place at the Main Botanical Garden in Moscow from February 17 to February 20.

At Salicicola, we wish to commemorate this date by publishing a translation of a short note authored by Skvortsov in 2004, in which he shared information about American chestnut cultivated in Russia and his own trial planting of this remarkable tree in the Main Botanical Garden in Moscow.

American chestnut (Castanea dentata [Marsh.] Borkh.) in Moscow

A.K. Skvortsov

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 [3]. 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 [1].
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 [4]. 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 Moscow.
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 [1] as C. sativa. Due to unlikeliness of such a possibility,[1]Castanea sativa is a tree adapted to warm Mediterranean climate (translator’s note) this note was never acknowledged by dendrologists. The trees turned out to be C. dentata, and the fact that they were successfully grown in Michurinsk[2]Michurinsk is situated 400 km southeast of Moscow (translator’s note). 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., MacMillan.
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.

[1]   Castanea sativa is a tree adapted to warm Mediterranean climate (translator’s note)
[2]   Michurinsk is situated 400 km southeast of Moscow (translator’s note).

20 February 2020