Nothing tastes better than roasted chestnuts with a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter's night. The American chestnut tree once dominated forests in the Eastern United States, but a blight of Asian fungus destroyed 3.5 billion trees by 1940. Today, several groups are working to restore the tree to its former glory. Chestnut trees grow all over the world; the wood is resistant to rot and often used for furniture.
The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) has smooth twigs and grows up to 115 feet. The leaves, which have only a few short hairs, are 5 to 10 inches long. The nuts from this tree are sweeter than other varieties. This tree is fast-growing and grows best in zones 5 to 9. For a good harvest of nuts, plant several trees to ensure pollination. These trees lose their leaves in winter and cannot survive if temperatures go below 33 degrees F. Blight-resistant hybrids are your best bet, but you can buy the native tree, which is not resistant to blights.
Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) trees reach a height of 40 to 60 feet. To produce nuts, you must plant two for pollination. This tree likes hot and dry climates and grows well in zones 4 to 8; soil should be well-drained, acidic and loamy. It is resistant to blights and needs full sun. The Chinese chestnut has slow-to-medium growth and provides excellent shade. The 3-to-5-inch leaves have toothed margins. The nuts are less sweet than the American chestnut's, but they roast well and taste great in dressing for Thanksgiving dinner.
The chinquapin (Castanea pumila), also spelled chinkapin, is a dwarf chestnut that has yellow flowers and grows to a height of 14 feet by the time it is 20 years old. It grows well in coarse- and medium-textured soils in zones 5 to 9. The nuts are small. It needs at least 40 days of rain and 150 frost-free days per year. In Kentucky, the Allegheny chinquapin is a threatened species; the chinquapin is an endangered species in New Jersey.
The horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), also known as the conker tree, is an ornamental tree that produces beautiful white flowers. It grows well in zones 4 to 7 and reaches a height of 50 to 75 feet when mature, although it grows only 13 to 24 inches per year. The spread of its branches is 40 to 70 feet. The horse chestnut grows in many soils, including loamy, rich, well-drained, clay, moist and sandy. It does well in full sun or partial shade.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata) grows well only in Florida in the United States; it is native to Japan and grows prolifically there. This tree grows to a height of nearly 30 feet, and its leaves are about 7 inches long. It can grow in nutritionally poor soil and prefers acidic and neutral soil. The nuts have a poor flavor.