A passion to restore the American chestnut tree has yielded not only chestnuts but also hope for the species that almost disappeared from American landscapes in the last century.
story: Mary Ann DeSantis | photos: Tony DeSantis
To some people, planting chestnut trees as far south as Lake County may have seemed like a nutty idea. After all, American chestnut trees — even in their heyday — did not grow much farther south than Georgia. For horticulturists Jim Ellis and Jim Casto, however, it was an “experimental adventure” that would have intrinsic rewards. In 1989, the duo planted 200 chestnut trees near Groveland and patiently waited for their first crop — a process that took 15 years. The trees began producing nuts around 2004. Last fall, their Chestnut Grove Nursery produced about 600 pounds of chestnuts, more if you count the small ones given to livestock and foraged by wild pigs and deer.
This month, their trees are again loaded with spiky, porcupine-like pods about to burst forth with the nuts that nutritionists call “a grain that grows on a tree.” The men know they won’t get rich growing chestnuts but the reward is seeing a comeback of the American chestnut tree that was wiped out by blight brought into this country in 1904. They compare the near extinction of chestnut trees to what is currently happening to citrus crops because of citrus greening.
“It took 40 years, but the blight all but destroyed American chestnut trees,” says Casto. “Our main goal was to see their restoration.”
The two men were working in horticulture at Disney World when Ellis approached Casto with the idea of growing chestnuts. Ellis had bought land on a rise near Groveland in 1988 and was looking long-term toward retirement.
“I thought it would be great to re-establish the American chestnut, but I didn’t know if I’d be successful or not,” says Ellis. “I knew I’d be happy if I could make enough money to cover the taxes on the property.”
He bought the Dunstan Hybrid variety, which is an American chestnut rootstock grafted with Chinese chestnut rootstock that is blight resistant. Other varieties at the nursery include the Revival, Willamette, Carolina, and Alachua.
Ellis warns that the initial investment to plant chestnut trees can be quite steep. “And you wait a long time before you see anything happening,” he says.
When harvest does happen, the labor can be quite intensive. The pods do not ripen at the same time, and Casto says it’s a race to beat the deer and wild pigs to the grove. The nuts are separated from the spiky pods, washed, bagged, and refrigerated until they go to market. Ellis says they sell both wholesale and retail, and keeping up with the demand can be challenging because so many people have become aware of chestnuts’ nutritional qualities.
Casto’s wife, Barbara, helps with the business when she is not working as a nurse at Orlando Regional Hospital. As a health professional, she is not surprised by the growing popularity of chestnuts.
“Chestnuts are great for people with celiac disease because they are gluten-free,” she says. “And everyone wants chestnut flour because of the nutritional value.”
Casto talks about a friend’s father who had cancer and had trouble eating. The doctor wanted him to get more protein in his diet, and products made with chestnut flour were the answer.
Both Ellis and Casto have since retired from Disney, and their congenial relationship continues as they excitedly talk about the future of chestnuts in Florida.
“Our trees probably have another 20 years before they are considered mature, so we hope to see the yields get even better,” says Casto. “We think chestnuts could someday be an alternate crop for citrus growers in this area.”
Chestnuts are not the only crop that may be an alternate for beleaguered citrus growers. Olive and pomegranate trees are being grown in Lake County, as well as other places around the state on an experimental basis.
Maria Tracy, who owns Heather Oaks Farm in Lady Lake, planted Arbequina olive trees about five years ago and is harvesting olives for the first time this year. The yield is still small, but Tracy says she’ll have enough to make boutique olive oil. Ironically, her farm was originally a citrus grove long before she bought the land in 1989.
“There are five species of olive trees that can grow in Florida and handle our humidity,” she says. “I don’t know what triggered my brain to get the idea to plant olive trees, but I’m glad I did.”
Tracy is also growing pomegranates as part of a research project for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“People like Maria are helping us learn more about which varieties will grow here,” says Dr. William Castle, who began the IFAS study in 2009. “Wild pomegranates grow all over Central and North Florida. We are trying to figure out how to make them commercially viable, not to replace citrus but to supplement it.”