Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … the image is romantic, but rather unlikely, according to David Lockwood, extension fruit and nut specialist at the University of Tennessee.
Once an important and common tree in the state, the American chestnut was virtually wiped out by a blight that started in New York City in the 1930s and spread across the country.
Researchers are working on a blight-resistant strain, which they hope to introduce to East Tennessee in the next several years, but until then, sugar-coated pecans might be a good holiday alternative to buttery chestnuts.
“Pecans are the major nut produced in Tennessee because they are native to the Mississippi Valley. But the majority of chestnuts we consume are imported from Italy,” Lockwood says.
A handful of Tennesseans do grow and sell chestnuts, however.
Hector Black of Cookeville tends approximately 50 Chinese and Japanese chestnut trees on his Hidden Springs Orchard farm, selling the nuts by the pound from September to December.
Jenny and Darrin Drake of Hickman also grow and sell chestnuts from their farm, Peaceful Pastures. Their American Chestnuts are among a handful of Tennessee trees spared from the blight.