How to Grow the Chinese Chestnut Tree

Chinese chestnut fruit growing on a tree.


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Until last century in the United States, if you mentioned the chestnut, you would have been referring to the American chestnut (Castanea dentata). Then, in as short as four decades, a fungal disease swept through the country by way of the Japanese Chestnut tree (C. Crenata) and killed nearly every American Chestnut in the wild that had no resistance to this horrible blight. During this time another Asian Chestnut tree, this one with resistance to the blight, the Chinese chestnut tree (Castanea mollissima) became popular in North America and is today the most popular chestnut in landscape use.  

While used as a substitute for the American chestnut, the two are very different in form. The American chestnut was very fast growing and ideal for producing timber reaching 100 feet or more. By comparison, the Chinese chestnut is a short tree that only reaches 40 feet, making it much more versatile. The smaller Chinese species is ideal for producing nuts in an orchard setting, as a street or shade tree, or as a specimen tree.

One little-known benefit in growing the Chinese chestnut when people are looking to produce chestnuts for food is the species' quick cropping ability. Unlike their American cousin, Chinese chestnuts fruit 20 years earlier at just four years after planting. The preliminary product is the readily available food source for bees in the Chestnut blooms that occur before nuts are produced.

When planting the Chinese chestnut, besides providing for bees, the tree is an ongoing energy source for wild turkeys, deer, and small mammals. These ecological benefits are achieved while looking aesthetically pleasing, offering three-season interest to viewers of its brilliant fall and spring foliage and its interesting winter bark.

The only real drawback that comes with growing the Chinese chestnut, or any chestnut tree, is the maintenance that comes with the cleanup when the chestnuts and the spiky pods drop.

Botanical Name  Castanea mollissima
Common Name Chinese Chestnut
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 40-60 ft. Tall 40-60 ft. Wide.
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Soil Type Medium to wet, well-drained loam
Soil pH  Slightly acidic
Bloom Time June
Flower Color  Yellowish White
Hardiness Zone  USDA 4-8
Native Area  Korea and China

Chinese Chestnut Tree Care

Apart from the clean-up maintenance required when this tree drops its chestnuts and pods, the Chinese chestnut is considered a low-maintenance and versatile species for use in a variety of different garden landscape settings.

Light

The Chinese chestnut prefers full sun but can tolerate partial shade with a decrease in nut production.

Soil

The tree can be grown in soil that would be seen as unfit for other plants, such as sandy or gravelly soils. Chinese chestnut trees adapt to a wide range of well-drained sites, doing best on light, airy, and acidic (pH 5.5) soil.

Water

The Chinese chestnut is tolerant of some drought. However, supplemental watering helps promote tree growth and reduce stress, especially in the first year. Once established, irrigation will help bearing trees to produce larger nuts.

Temperature and Humidity

The Chinese chestnut is very cold hardy (down to -20oF) and is considered hardy throughout USDA growing zone 5.

However, the tree only has the ability to withstand frost during dormancy. New buds are susceptible to frost damage and should be guarded from cold high winds.

Fertilizer

Before planting a Chinese chestnut, a soil test should be performed. This test provides valuable information on soil pH, texture, and nutrients. Chestnut trees require well-drained soils and a pH of 4.5-6.5. Only after the test has been done will you have the information needed to do any fertilization or soil amendments.

Chestnut Trees Varieties

There are over 300 cultivars of Chinese chestnut available. Some are chosen specifically for their blight resistance, while others are picked for fruit production. If looking for fruiting trees, C. mollissima ‘Abundance’ and ‘Nanking’ are excellent selections. 

Common Pests/Diseases

Blight has virtually eliminated the American chestnut tree from the landscape, but Chinese Chestnut is moderately resistant to the disease. It has been used to breed a resistant hybrid of American chestnut by creating a backcross between C. dentata and C. mollissima.