The chestnut belongs to the Oak family and to the group Castanea. The sterile flowers cluster in long catkins, and appear in the axils of the leaves. The fertile flowers are near the base of the last sessile catkin, from one to seven in a cluster, having a calyx from four to six lobed, crowning the three- to seven-celled ovary, which becomes a scaly, prickly bur.
The chestnut is a tall-growing tree. Travelers describe the monarchs of Etna as being trees of immense size The Roman writers who have written on rural affairs, mention the chestnut as a valuable food-producing tree, but Pliny, who describes several varieties of the chestnut, seems to place more value upon the timber than on the nut. There are three principal subdivisions: the European chestnut, the American, and the Chinkapin.
The European variety has long, lanceolate, pointed eaves, smooth on both sides, and much thicker than the leaves of any other variety.
The burs are very large, covered with long, branching spines. The nut shell is thick and tough, and of a dark, mahogany-brown color. This variety is characterized by the kernels being wrapped in a tough skin that is intensely bitter.
There are many varieties of this group, among them the Japan chestnut, the Numbo, the Paragon, Ridgely, Comfort, Cooper, Carson, and many others.
Open Bur of the Ridgely Chestnut.
The European chestnut has been so frequently and extensively referred to by ancient and modern authors that it would not be at all difficult to fill a large volume with brief extracts from their works. All who have had any experience with it admit its value as food for many wild and domestic animals, as well as for the human race.
The European chestnut is much larger than those indigenous to America, and many have tried growing them here; but only a few have succeeded in making them grow, though after they are once started they are quite hardy. There are a few nice groves of the Japan, Numbo, and Paragon chestnuts, species of the European variety, growing on Long Island and in New Jersey.
1. A Small, Wild Form; 2. Murrell; 3. Hulse , 4. Excelsior; 5. Ketcham, 6. Wild Form; 7. Watson; 8. Otto; 9. Dulaney; 10. Griffin; 11. Numbo; 12. Ridgely; 13. Japan Giant.
The American chestnut has oblong-lanceolate serrate leaves, smooth on both sides. The bur, which usually contains three nuts, is thickly covered with long, branching spines, becoming woody, and opening by four valves.
The nuts have a dark-brown shell, which is tough and leathery. The kernels are fine grained and sweet. The trees are common in the Middle and Northern States; they grow very large and live to a great age. Some of the varieties of this group are the Burless and the Hathaway.
The Chinkapin is the smallest of the chestnut family; its leaves are broadly oval, coarsely serrate, pale green above, and silvery white below. The burs are in long racemes, covered with long, branching, sharp spines, containing only one, top-shaped, glossy-black nut in each bur. The kernels are sweet. Fuller's Chinkapin, common Chinkapin, and the Bush Chinkapin, are in this group.
The chestnut ranks high in nutritive value, containing eighty-nine per cent, of nutrition, - fourteen and six-tenths per cent, of albuminous element, sixty-nine per cent, of starch, two and four-tenths per cent of fats, and three and three-tenths per cent, of salts.
As they contain so much starch, they are more easily`` digested if cooked before being eaten. For more than a thousand years, this nut has been an important article of diet for the poorer class of Southern Europe. In some of the mountain districts, it is almost the staff of life. Chestnuts are not only used in their raw state, but are boiled, roasted, and even dried and `ground into flour, which is made into a coarse but nutritious kind of bread.