Trees that were once abundant across the Ozarks are again taking root in the rugged landscape.
Ozark chinquapin trees once stood majestic and tall as 65 feet with trunks two to three feet in diameter. Their leafy crowns offered welcome shade, but also nutritious nuts for all manner of wildlife. People too enjoyed munching on tasty Ozark chinquapin nuts, said Steve Chyrchel, an interpreter at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area.
Chyrchel and the staff at Hobbs State Park, along with volunteers, are part of an effort to restore stands of Ozark chinquapin trees in Arkansas and beyond. The tree disease chestnut blight killed most of the Ozark chinquapins in Arkansas and surrounding states in the 1950s. The blight hit Northwest Arkansas in 1957, Chyrchel said.
Ten or so years ago, Ozark chinquapin seedlings were planted on a cleared hillside at the park. Now some of those trees stand 15 feet tall and are producing nuts, which are the seeds from the trees. Those seeds are collected and given to the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation. The foundation, based in Western Grove near Harrison, distributes seeds to members for planting.
Chyrchel stood among the park’s grove of Ozark chinquapins on a hot June afternoon.
“We’ve got about 40 trees growing in here now,” he said.
Golden flower-like blades on the branches, called catkins, have the pollen needed to produce more seeds. Chyrchel pointed out small burrs on the branches that will be Ozark chinquapin nuts near the end of summer.
Through research and cross pollination, Ozark chinquapin enthusiasts have developed seeds that are more resistant to blight. A goal of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation is to eventually make seeds available to anyone who wants to help restore the trees to their native range.
The effort took root at Hobbs State Park when Al Knox, the park’s former trail supervisor, recognized an Ozark chinquapin tree on park property in 2005. Hundreds of seeds (nuts) from this one tree were collected for planting, Chyrchel noted. Seeds were planted, but the effort was mostly unsuccessful. Disease-resistant seeds hadn’t been developed yet.
Now, successful planting takes place at Arkansas state parks in the Ozarks where the ground is suitable for planting, Chyrchel said. Workers with the Arkansas Forestry Commission have planted hundreds of Ozark chinquapins in Carroll County. Army Corps of Engineers has planted them at Prairie Creek park on Beaver Lake and elsewhere. Success of the trees varies from location to location, Chyrchel said.
Ozark chinquapins grow best in ground that has good drainage and doesn’t stay wet for long periods. Still, young Ozark chinquapins need lots of water.
“You really have to keep up with watering them when they’re young, about two times each week,” Chyrchel said. The park is recruiting volunteers to help water trees in the grove at the park. Those interested in helping may call Chyrchel at (479) 789-5006 for details.
The main reason for restoring the trees is for wildlife, he continued. Ozark chinquapin nuts are far more nutritious for animals that white oak acorns.
Bob Ross is a retired Rogers High School biology teacher who lives next to Hobbs State Park. He remembers eating Ozark chinquapin nuts he picked up off the ground while growing up near Garfield.
“I’ll tell you what, you never tasted anything better,” he said. “That is, if you could beat the squirrels to them.”
The sweet nuts have a taste all their own that Ross couldn’t compare to any other nut.
“They were like money,” Ross said. “They were so good you could trade them for things with the kids who lived in town who didn’t have any of the trees.”
The nuts have a burr-like shell that people removed to eat the pea-sized nuts.
“It got to where we were bringing so many nuts to school that there were Ozark chinquapin hulls all over the place inside the school. So, eventually, we were outlawed from bringing any more nuts to school,” he recalled.
Ross is cheering for an Ozark chinquapin comeback so he can once again gaze at the majestic trees and munch on a handful of Ozark chinquapin nuts.
Steve Chyrchel (left), interpreter at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, and photographer Tim Johnson stand among the grove of Ozark chinquapin trees being grown at the park. Johnson is photographic the pollinator insects at the grove. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Ozark Chinquapin Foundation
Ozark Chinquapin Foundation was started in 2007 by a Missouri man with a vision of restoring the trees to back to Southern forests. The foundation works to establish a viable seed base through research and manual cross-pollination of surviving trees to develop a 100% pure Ozark chinquapin.
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, P.O. Box 162, Western Grove, Ark. 72685.
Source: Ozark Chinquapin Foundation