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Better Than Oaks?

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"If you still haven’t heard about the return of the American chestnut, you’re not the only one.

QUESTION: I recently read an article on Dunstan chestnut trees, and how deer really love them. It explains how deer prefer them over white oak acorns. Is there any truth to this? How would the swamp chestnut oak compare to the Dunstan chestnut for deer? — Curtis L.

Better Than Oaks?

ANSWER: For those unfamiliar, the American chestnut was pretty much wiped out by disease back in the 1940s. The tree you’re referring to is a cultivar originally developed by Robert Dunstan, a plant breeder. As the story goes, a friend of Dunstan’s found a single living American chestnut in Ohio and sent him some cuttings. Dunstan grew them to flowering and crossed them with Chinese chestnuts, creating a strain with high disease resistance and good nut and tree quality. He then cross bred them back with the pure American chestnut to develop a blight-resistant and nearly pure American Chestnut.

Dunstan chestnut trees have survived for over 30 years from Maine to central florida and throughout the Midwest with no blight infection whatsoever. They’re sold through Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Florida and Realtree Nursery at www.realtreenursery.com.

As for their attractiveness to deer, I haven’t seen results from any empirical scientific experiments but have seen some pretty convincing anecdotal evidence. And it’s not surprising. American chestnuts were once among the most common hardwood trees in eastern North America, making up an estimated 25 percent of the eastern hardwood forest.

Furthermore, chestnuts are nutritionally superior to acorns, containing approximately 40 percent carbohydrates, compared to about 10 percent for white oak acorns; 10 percent protein compared to only 4 percent for white oak acorns; and 2 percent fat, compared to 10 percent in acorns. And deer have an innate ability to determine the most nutritious foods.

They also make a better choice for mast orchards as they grow faster and bigger, sometimes bearing in two to five years, where a white oak might not bear for 20 years. Chestnuts can grow 60-80 feet tall, and they lack the cyclical nature of oaks because they flower later in spring – after late frosts that could cause widespread acorn failures and starvation years for wildlife.

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