Or chinkapins or Allegheny chinquapins or dwarf chestnuts or more specifically, Castanea pumila. Whatever you want to call them, I am happy to have them growing here, especially since I was tempted to buy a couple this spring when I saw them on sale at Bob Wells Nursery.
Farm Boy and I noticed the funny spiky balls yesterday while walking the dogs. We actually walk past this spot every day (and have for four years!), but two small trees among 7 acres of big trees have to really work to stand out to us unobservant humans. I have to assume that this is the first year they have fruited, because I really don't think I could have missed this:
According to what I've read, the chinquapin is a great source of food and shelter for wildlife and the nuts were once extremely popular with people, as they are much sweeter than chestnuts. I'm not sure why they have fallen out of favor, except that they are so small and a little difficult to collect.
Originally we only noticed the one tree, but there are two trees a few feet apart. One is shorter with multiple small trunks and the other is a single trunk, about 4" in diameter at the base. They are mixed in with American beautyberry and some (annoying) rattan vine. We'll have to see if we can get that cleaned out a little bit to let the chinquapins form a nice thicket.
The foliage is dark green, glossy, toothed and...
apparently, very tasty. I noticed there were chunks were missing from many leaves, then spotted this guy. Another reason I'm happy to have chinquapins: they are a larval host plant to the orange-tipped oakworm moth.
I spent a few minutes liberating some nuts from the husks. Even when they are fully opened, it can be a painful operation. I've read that they are really good roasted, so we will have to try that with a few. The rest I'm going to try to propagate, since they are a fairly rare - and in many areas, endangered - species, due to chestnut blight. The chinquapin isn't as susceptible to the blight as the American chestnut was, but it can still be severely damaged by it.