Identifying your Chestnut Tree
Almost all the chestnut trees in Louisville currently are Chinese chestnuts, including a large collection at Cave Hill Cemetery, and several groupings at Bernheim. There were previous examples of European chestnuts (C. sativa) at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, but these were heavily blighted and have been removed. A map of Chinese chestnuts reported in Louisville and a slide show will be attached to this page.
|Leaf taper to stem||straight||curved||curved||curved||straight||Be aware that all chestnuts can cross-pollinate, so that the chestnut you are trying to identify may actually be a mix of two or more different types of chestnuts, known as a hybrid.|
We can attempt to identify your chestnut, if you are unable to do so, by means of a leaf and twig sample.
Please press one or two fresh leaves between cardboard with a 4-6 inch twig. Do not use plastic unless it is perforated or the leaves will mold. Crushed and bent leaves will not be in good enough condition to positively analyze.
New England Regional Science Coordinator
Northern Research Station, US Forest Service
705 Spear Street
South Burlington, VT 05403
|Leaf taper to tip||straight||curved||curved||curved||straight|
|Teeth||1-3 mm, small, sharp, no hook||tiny, often only bristles, no hook||large or small, not pronounced or hooked||big, sharp or rounded, no hook||6 mm, big, sharp, and often curved (hooked)|
|Underside||sun leaves hairy||many large dots (glands), sun leaves hairy||sparse dots, sun leaves hairy||many small dots, sun leaves hairy on some specimens but not others||many small dots, sun leaves not hairy, long sparse hairs only on midrib|
|Twig||hair tips, purple||pink to light red, large white lenticels||hairy tips, tan to pea green, large elliptical yellow lenticels||stout, dark brown, small white lenticels||slender, smooth, hairless, reddish brown, small white lenticels|
|Bud||3 mm, downy dark red, pointed, longer than wide, sticks out from stem||glossy brown, as long as it is wide (rounded)||hairy, tan, dull brown to black, rounded and flat against stem||dark red, fat and globular||long 6 mm, smooth, reddish brown, pointed or longer than it is wide, sticks out from stem|
1/2 tip pointed with a round cross section
rounded hairy tip, sunburst pattern
pointed tip, top 1/3-2/3 downy, sunburst at base
This is a cluster of spiny chestnut burs, with two nuts. The nut on the right is firm and full and delicious (pollinated) but the other is shriveled and hollowed out and will not sprout. In a fully pollinated bur, there are typically 3 full nuts.
These are catkins fully developed with burs that are ready to be pollinated. The other native trees that bloom late in the year around the same time as American chestnuts are Black Locust and Sourwood. The flowers of Sourwood can be mistaken for chestnut at a distance. Chinese chestnuts bloom earlier than American chestnuts. Those backcross hybrid trees (15/16th hybrids) which leaf out and bloom earlier than native KY American trees are revealing that Chinese heritage.
This is a group of 20 year old pure American chestnuts planted by Welles Thurber (in front) in Maine. Notice the height of these young trees. They are covered with burs.
This is a large Chinese tree in Boston, Kentucky, one of two trees in the old cemetery.
Identifying Your Chestnut Tree:
- The first step in deciding whether your tree is a possible chestnut is to distinguish it from other trees which can be mistaken for chestnut trees. The chestnut genus “Castanea” is not the same as the horsechestnut family “Aesculus” or the beech genus “Fagus”.
- In a second step, you need to learn the differences between the common members of the Castanea family. In Kentucky, these are the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), the Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), and the occasional Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata). In addition, there are specimens of Chinkapin growing in Kentucky.
Beech – If your tree looks like this, then it is probably a beech tree. These trees have toothed leaves, and smooth gray bark. They also have long pointed buds. The leaf is wider and shorter than the American chestnut tree leaves. There are many giant old American beeches in Cave Hill Cemetery at the Grinsted entrance, and along Lexington Road, particularly at the entrance to Whitehall Historic Home.
Horse Chestnut – If your tree has leaves like this, it is probably a horsechestnut tree. The leaves are “palmate”, radiating from the center, and are arranged in a spoke. The tree is often found planted in towns. It originated in Europe, and it is often what people think of when they hear about “chestnut” trees. It is in a separate family called “Aesculus”. The American buckeye trees are also in this family. The nuts can be confused with American chestnuts, since they have the same shiny rich brown appearance, but THEY ARE NOT EDIBLE.
American Chestnut – If your tree has long toothed pendant leaves like this, it may be a member in the chestnut family. The American chestnut has long canoe shaped leaves with a prominent lance shaped tip, with a coarse, forward hooked teeth at the edge of the leaf. The leaf is dull or “matte” rather than shiny or waxy in texture.
Identifying Your Chestnut Tree – Step 2
Once you have decided that you have a Chestnut, the second step in deciding if your tree is American chestnut is to distinguish whether it is pure American, or if it has some non-American chestnut parentage.Over the past hundred years or so, European, Chinese, and Japanese chestnut trees as well as hybrids have been planted in the natural range of American chestnut, so remote location is not necessarily a guide to a tree’s parentage.
Most of established Chestnuts are Chinese, and they have a very distinctive apple tree shape, rounded with multi-stemmed trunk (see next column). The leaf is spade shaped, with a rounded bottom and is characteristically wider in the other third of the leaf. It is glossy and heavier than American leaves.
But fortunately, each species of chestnut as a pure species has a definite kind of glandular hair on the back of the leaf than can be seen with a good dissecting scope. This is generally the safest way to confirm identification of a pure species.
Other chestnut identification sites to improve your eyes…
Other chestnut identification resources