Photo from google images of chinkapin nuts in a burr.
The chinkapin, a shrubby relative of the American chestnut and not to be confused with the similarly named chinkapin oak (Quercus muhlenberger), used to be locally common, growing on the tops of rocky hills in the piedmont region of the southeast and in the undergrowth of open pine savannahs on the coastal plain. The early explorer, John Lawson, reported the trees as so common that hogs fattened on the nuts. He described the nuts as smaller, rounder, and sweeter than those of its relative, the chestnut. Most sources state that it was the better tasting of the two. William Bartram found chinkapin growing in association with chestnuts and chestnut oaks (Quercus prinus) on the tops of rocky piedmont hills, a forest type that contrasted with that of the surrounding area which was mostly an oak forest but in the valleys between the rocky hills a much richer forest of black walnut, beech, hackberry, tulip, and sycamore grew. Moist creek bottoms and richer soils kept the latter area from burning, but the thin dry soils at the tops of rocky hills endured frequent fires. Oak and chinkapin thrive in fire prone sites because they’re shade intolerant and need open areas to grow.
Most of the jobs I’ve had in the Augusta, Georgia area have taken me to just about every neighborhood in Richmond and Columbia Counties. I used to survey lawns for Orkin Lawn Care, and I worked for many years as a route manager for the Augusta Chronicle. While working I, of course, took note of the vegetation (ecology has always held a great interest for me), and I’ve never seen a chinkapin. Botanists warn the chinkapin is in decline for a number of reasons: fire suppression, chestnut blight, and suburban development. Without fire, shade tolerant trees begin to dominate, and chinkapin can’t grow in the shade. The chestnut blight completely destroyed the once common chestnut forests. The chinkapin is also susceptible but is better able to survive because it is a shrub that resprouts and can produce a crop of nuts before it dies back again from the disease. Still, the blight reduces overall nut production.
The chestnut blight was a disaster for the ecosystem. Chestnuts and chinkapins were important sources of food for wildlife. Now, trees such as tulip, which produce no mast, have replaced chestnuts. They may be beautiful trees but animals can’t eat beauty. I think the lack of chestnuts explains why I saw almost no wildlife on my trip to the Smoky Mountains National Park last summer (see my blog entry “Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Tale of a Tourist Trap Nightmare” which is I believe in the June 2010 archives).
The chinkapin has two interesting adaptations that help it survive as a species. It germinates quickly in the fall. The nut ripens from September to November, and they produce heavily–up to 1500 nuts per bush, beginning when they’re just six years old. Squirrels disperse the species by burying the highly valued food, but the chinkapins foil the squirrels when they germinate immediately. After they’ve become a seedling, the squirrel can’t utilize them. Fall germination prevents animals from destroying the entire progeny, but by producing a nut with high food value, they motivate the squirrels to disperse them. The other adaptive characteristic is its ability to resprout vigorously. Fire may kill the main trunk, but chinkapin will resprout and form thickets. Deer also find chinkapin a favored food and will browse down the main trunk, causing the shrub to resprout and create thickets. Their thickets provide great cover and food for turkey and grouse.
Fossil evidence shows that turkey and grouse were quite common in upland Georgia during the Pleistocene–both left abundant specimens at Ladds and Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County. Two studies of sediment cores in Georgia found that chestnut/chinkapin made up about 2% of the pollen spectrum during the Pleistocene. Both sites (Nodoroc and Grays Reef) date to about 30,000 BP. Chinkapin surely was a common component of the open oak and pine savannahs so prevalent then. Its ability to resprout and fall germinate is an ancient adaptation to survive fire and megafauna foraging. The more such animals as mastodon, horse, llama, and deer browsed, the more this shrub would bounce back and form thickets ideal for bird life.
The Indians used to cook chinkapin and hickory nuts with their venison in well-rounded stews. Chinkapins are a nice starchy substitute for bread or potatoes; hickory nuts provided a nice oily substitute for butter. Chestnuts, unlike most other nuts, are primarily a carbohydrate based food, rather than a fatty form of sustenance. They’re sweet and bready and act as a laxative. I hate to buy expensive imported European chestnuts when I think how abundant and cheap American chestnuts and chinkapins used to be.