Arkansas Efforts to Restore Endangered Ozark Chinquapins Take Root and Grow

0

HOBBS STATE PARK – Al Knox spent years here as a volunteer and trail supervisor. It was as a volunteer, in 2002, that he found the Ozark chinquapin.

The chinquapin is a tree of the chestnut family, a species mainly wiped out in America by an invasive plague from Asia.

Much more on this soon. Back to Al Knox.

He was cutting weeds with a trimmer in one area – a small area, considering the park’s 12,054 acres – when he came across a bush. Not a tree. A Bush.

Knox recognized the bush as an Ozark chinquapin, as he remembered eating nuts from a tree as a child. Knox is 87, found the chinquapin at 67, and ate those nuts a long time ago.

“I almost ran my face through the smudges,” he said of Hobbs’ discovery. “I recognized him as a chinquapin, which I hadn’t seen for 50 years since I was a kid.”

This bush and its burrs (fuzzy bundles in which the nut grows) became part of the effort to restore the Ozark chinquapin to its original habitat. Now, according to Steve Chyrchel, a park interpreter who Knox says knows more about the tree than anyone in Arkansas, the habitat is primarily Arkansas, with pockets in several surrounding states.

This, says Chyrchel, is the Arkansas tree.

Knox grew up eating those nuts in Bentonville. He still lives in northwest Arkansas, at Prairie Creek not far from the park near Rogers.

“I filled my pockets with them and went to school. The girls loved them.” Sometimes these nuts were his lunch.

No doubt he sometimes played Huly Gully. It is a game in which a player shakes chinquapin nuts in his hands. Another player would guess how many. If he guessed right, Chyrchel said, he won the nuts.

It would be good luck.

“They taste,” Chyrchel said, “like a macadamia.”

The call of the Ozark chinquapin crosses generational lines. Elana Stroud, 27, volunteers at Hobbs in the chinquapin patches maintained by Chyrchel, park interpreter Chris Pistole and volunteers. She was inspired by “The Overstory”, a novel by John Powers which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019.

“It’s like a 700-page fable,” Stroud said. The first chapter deals with chestnuts and mildew. Her curiosity led her to learn about chinquapins at Hobbs.

New trees, like the many saplings in the plots, need to be watered, she said.

[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos: arkansasonline.com/919leaf]

“They can be very sensitive and can die if they don’t get enough water. It’s hard work for such a simple task. It’s tough out there when it’s 100 degrees.”

Stroud found herself drawn to the task. “It’s a nice idea to bring back something that was here.”

The return seems doable. A happy ending is on the horizon.

LAY LOW

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century American poet, wrote “The Village Blacksmith”. It starts like this:

Under the spreading chestnut tree stands the village forge…

The blacksmiths are no longer very present. Same for chestnuts. A fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, nearly wiped out these chestnuts and eventually the chinquapins.

Aren’t mushrooms funny? Hey, “there’s a mushroom among us!” But Cryphonectria parasitica is not funny. He fed – still feeds – on all the chestnuts and chinquapins he can find. He is relentless, and has been since arriving in this country from Asia in the early 1900s.

The disease it causes, chestnut blight, has killed an estimated 3 to 4 billion trees in the United States.

Fred Paillet is assistant professor of geosciences at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is, along with fellow professor Steven Stephenson, author of a book, “Ozark Forest Forensics: The Science Behind the Scenery in Our Regional Forests.” It is published by the Ozark Society Foundation.

Paillet studied the fungus and its effects. He’s 75, grew up in Connecticut and knows the devastation caused by the fungus in the eastern United States: “It was like the Black Death in the Middle Ages. The trees caught it and crumbled. “

Blight was first discovered at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. By 1940, most American chestnuts were extinct.

“It was exponentially deadly,” Paillet said. “There was some hope that some trees had resistance, but for the American chestnut there was no resistance. The Ozark chinquapin was so completely ignored, but it is suspected that it might have a little more resistance .”

Chestnut trees spread naturally, Paillet said, and some chestnut trees escaped into forests in Wisconsin and Michigan “before the blight found them.”

UNDERGROUND RESERVE

The burn kills the Ozark chinquapin above ground. Roots can survive, and most survivors in the wild look like a bush and not the 65-foot trees that once shaded the hills of the Ozarks. A bush is what Al Knox discovered in 2002.

In a patch of chinquapins in Hobbs State Park, limbs are growing above some bushes. The bushes look healthy; the tallest shoots are dead. Eventually, said Chris Pistole, a park interpreter involved in the effort to grow the trees, those trees that are not resistant to blight will die.

Paillet determined that the plague came to Arkansas in 1957.

Chinquapin wood, he says, is exceptionally rot-resistant. He searched the woods for dead chinquapins.

“I would find a dead chinquapin and look at the tree rings of the nearest tree and see that in 1958 that tree started growing like crazy because the chinquapin shade had been removed. Those trees were mostly oaks .”

Paillet is aware of the work underway to restore the Ozark chinquapin. He is confident that the effort will succeed.

“I think it’s totally doable because the material we have to work with survives. The key thing is to test the material you’re working with to see if it’s resistant to burning.

“It’s a difficult and expensive process. You propagate, then let it grow where it can take some stress, then infect it with mildew to get rid of 99% of the trees that aren’t resistant and propagate the survivors.

“The challenge is to challenge your hardware with the flail.”

What about grocery chestnuts sold during the holidays?

“These come from Chinese chestnut orchards in this country” and other countries, he said. “In China they are like apples and pears and were bred to produce.” In fact, he said, there are about half a dozen Chinese chestnuts in production at Veterans Park in Fayetteville.

There is another wrinkle to this story. The fungus has a disease that weakens it, Paillet said. “The disease has a disease.”

WHY A TREE MATTERS

Chyrchel speaks of “Ozark’s great love affair with the chinquapin”. Part of the restoration challenge, he said, is that today “very few people know about the Ozark chinquapin.”

To change this, he speaks, promotes, promulgates knowledge about the tree. One of Chrychel’s public appearances this year was at the Springdale of Arkansas Master Gardeners State Convention with the Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service.

Fortunately, he says, “it’s hard to eliminate a species”, and so he and fellow interpreter Pistole and volunteers maintain three separate plots of the tree at Hobbs.

A master seed plot provides seed to the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, which seed is to be shared with members of the foundation. The other two are “outdoor plantations”. Outdoor plantings involve placing groups of about four trees to re-establish the tree along its original range.

A few years ago, the foundation gave Chyrchel frozen pollen from trees found in Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. He used this pollen to hand-pollinate a Hobbs tree that was producing lots of seeds. This seed was donated to the foundation, which then seeded its plots in Missouri. Only one of 32 viable seeds survived. This tree, he said, after eight years of growth, last year produced more than 2,000 seeds.

Hobbs seeds are planted under a plastic tube to ward off hungry critters. A mesh is placed on top to prevent birds from falling, dying, rotting and killing the tree. The tube remains in place until the tree is well developed.

The trees are planted in rocky, well-drained soil. Chinquapins, says Chrychel, like south-facing slopes in full sun.

Chinquapin cultivation has spread to 10 state parks, he said. The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation provides the seeds and expertise, and the parks provide the land and management.

Why does it matter, Chyrchel asked rhetorically. “It’s just a tree. Who cares ?

His answer ? The Ozark chinquapin was vital to the Ozarks. Acorns are now the main source of mast for wildlife, but they are susceptible to early frost. “The chinquapin blooms in late May and early June, when the risk of frost has passed.”

Equally important, he says, is the quality of the nut. It has 31% more carbs than a white oak acorn, 230% more protein and 380% more fat: “It’s a super, super, super nutritious food source.

That nutrition works its way through the entire food chain, Chyrchel said, to black bears included, allowing mothers to have cubs every year.

“That’s why we do what we do.”

AHEAD

Others do too, especially at the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation in Poplar Bluff, Mo. The president and founder of the foundation is Steve Bost. He spoke by phone from his home in Missouri.

Established in 2007, the foundation gives seeds and growing instructions to willing members in 16 states. Last year, he said, about 4,200 seeds were distributed. In Arkansas, the seeds went to members but also to state parks, the Game and Fish Commission, the US Forest Service and the Forestry Commission.

How far is the foundation from this 100% burn resistant tree?

“We’ve been here since 2019,” Bost said. “We had it confirmed at that time. We have a US plant patent on it.

“Our plan is to give [seeds] to your friends and relatives. Little by little, we reverse the trend and the loss.

“When you restore a species, it’s remarkable. We have trees in Missouri that are reforesting the area around them.”

“It’s like winning the Super Bowl,” Bost added. “People don’t realize what it took to get there. We find that the trees we have are better than the trees we created last year, two years ago, five years ago, there 10 years ago.”

Bost said the foundation has developed trees that are tougher than the Chinese chestnut, and tougher than a genetically modified American chestnut.

This is a reason to be optimistic. What about pessimism?

“I don’t know,” Bost said. “I’ve dealt with people who doubted the existence of the tree, said I was wasting my time. All my life people said no, the Ozark chinquapin is dead, gone.

“If you believe that, you quit. If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right either way.”

Gallery: Seeds of Hope

Share.

Comments are closed.