Saving an American treasure, nut by nut


BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Sharp eyes, gloves and a GPS unit can turn a walk in the woods into a species-saver for the Ozark chinquapin.

The Ozark chinquapin, once a dominant forest tree whose range extended from the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri south to Texas and Louisiana, is now more akin to an understory shrub than a significant part of our forest ecosystem.

Along with the American chestnut of the Appalachians, the Ozark chinquapin was essentially eliminated from Ozarks forests as the Chinese chestnut blight swept across the eastern United States. The blight is caused by a fungus, Chryphonectria parasitica and was first observed in the United States in an American chestnut tree in New York City’s Bronx Zoo in 1904.

“By the mid-1960s, most Ozark chinquapin trees had been killed by the blight,” said Neal Mays, Benton County extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“Today, hunters and hikers are often the only people who come across a piece of Arkansas’ natural history, and even then, they may not recognize this small tree as anything special.”

The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation is asking for help from those who frequent the woods — to find and contribute nuts to the foundation’s efforts to save the trees.

“It is thought that any chinquapin trees that reach maturity and bear fruit may have some level of resistance to the Chinese chestnut blight, and nuts from large trees are particularly important for expanding the genetic diversity of the chinquapin breeding program,” May said.

Chinquapin trees can be identified by their distinctive toothed leaves and by the spiny bur that encapsulates the nut.

“Today, most growth of the Ozark chinquapin is the result of suckering from old stumps,” he said. “New blight infections usually kill new growth before or shortly after they are old enough to produce fruit.”

However, “the fungus doesn’t immediately infect young trees, whose slick bark lacks grooves that catch fungal spores,” Mays said. “Rather, wind or water-borne spores infect older, fissured wood, forming a canker that eventually girdles and kills the affected stem or branch.”

According to the foundation website, the OCF is “currently working on cross pollination of surviving resistant trees. Our focus is to establish a viable seed base of 100 percent pure Ozark chinquapin trees that are resistant to the Chestnut blight.”

OCF restoration efforts have been coordinated with state and federal agencies, including faculty from the Universities of Arkansas and Tennessee, the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the National Park Service.

Those who know of a large chinquapin tree or locate one are asked to note its location and GPS coordinates if possible. Contact Neal Mays at the Benton County Extension Office by email at nmays@uaex.edu or by phone, (479) 271-1060. If a landowner prefers the location of a tree remain unknown but wishes to contribute nuts or pollen, this desire is respected. Contact Steve Bost, stvbost@yahoo.com, of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation to arrange exchange of the genetic materials. For more information about the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation and its restoration efforts, visit the foundation’s website at www.ozarkchinquapin.com.

For more information about forestry, contact your county extension office, or visit www.uaex.edu or the Arkansas Forest Resources Center at www.afrc.uamont.edu/.