In the fall of 2013 the Friends of Rye Town Park hired Bartlett Tree Experts Company to carry out an inventory of all the park’s trees and shrubs.
By Bill Lawyer
In the fall of 2013 the Friends of Rye Town Park hired Bartlett Tree Experts Company to carry out an inventory of all the park’s trees and shrubs. When the project was completed, we were delighted to know that the park’s 28 acres of greenspace supported a population of 331 specimens, totaling 59 species in 35 genera. Since that time some dead trees have been removed, and other saplings planted, so that the current total is 325.
In looking over the list and location of these trees and shrubs, most were the familiar varieties that can be found in many Rye yards: maples, oaks, and plane trees.
But upon further inspection, five small, unexpected trees were recorded to be growing along the north-central end of the park, along Rye Beach Avenue — Allegheny Chinkapins (also spelled Chinquapins).
According to the Journal of American Folklore, the word Chinkapin derives from the Algonquin word meaning “large, angular fruit.”
As someone who grew up in south central Pennsylvania, I was familiar with them. Their normal range is in the eastern United States from Florida to New Jersey. I used to encounter them while hiking with my family along the Appalachian Trail near Gettysburg.
They were easy to spot because, like their closely related cousins, the chestnuts, they produce fruit (commonly called burrs) that are covered by spikes.
The Chinkapins and American chestnuts are both in the genus Castanea. The former are Castanea pumila and the latter Castanea dentata. They are also both native to North America.
As is the case with many species of trees, chinkapins have begun to expand their range northward. The US Department of Agriculture reported in 2006 that some specimens are now growing on Cape Cod.
And they are becoming more popular. While it takes a lot of work, if the outer shells are removed the Chinkapin nuts are edible and tasty when roasted — better than chestnuts.
Chinkapins are categorized as either large shrubs or small trees. Of the five at Rye Town Park, three had a diameter of 4 to 5 inches, but the other two were 10 and 14 inches in diameter. They are understory trees, growing in the shade of nearby sycamores, maples, and a horse chestnut. They can grow up to 20 feet high or more.
Most people who are familiar with trees are aware that the American chestnuts were completely wiped out by a chestnut blight fungus back in the early 20th century. The trees would grow to a height of about 8 to 10 feet and then die off. So far the chinkapins have only been mildly damaged from that fungus and other pests in our part of the range.
Chinkapins are monoecius — meaning that they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers appear first, and they have a strong odor, unpleasant to humans, perhaps to attract pollinators.
Beyond their normal native territory in the Eastern U.S. woodlands, chinkapins have been planted by farmers and hunters to provide food for wildlife and domestic animals. They are also used as hedgerows and windbreaks.
Scientists are exploring the possible medical uses for chinkapins; back in America’s colonial era, settlers learned from Native Americans to use the leaves and roots for remedies to treat headache, fever, and other ailments. According to the British “Plants For A Future” organization, chinkapins have been used to treat the symptoms of recurring diseases such as malaria.
Who knew that we had such botanical pharmacies, right in our backyard?