Seven people recently hiked up to a clearing on a ridge top to inspect the progress in a crusade to save the Ozark chinquapin, a once mighty tree that has all but disappeared from the Ozark landscape.
No roads or trails led to the 80-acre plot of private property covered with chinquapin saplings. The perimeter was posted with “no trespassing” signs and a solar-powered electric fence is planned to thwart the black bears that try to eat the chinquapins’ chestnut-like seeds.
Steve Bost, a naturalist with Missouri State Parks, founded the project and is protective of this secret spot. The location, which is on private property with the landowner’s permission, is where an entire species of trees is making a last stand.
“This represents the total number of people who have been here since I started this plot,” Bost said. “I kept it really secret.”
The chinquapin once thrived in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and was a welcomed tree because of its production of nuts, which are favored by both humans and wildlife. The chinquapin nut has a higher nutritional value than the oak acorn, and the tree blooms in May while oaks bloom earlier and are susceptible to late frosts.
Chinquapin wood was decay resistant and used to make fence posts and railroad ties, as well as furniture and musical instruments. Many an Ozark dulcimer or fiddle was crafted from chinquapin.
The trees’ problems began in 1904, when a deadly fungus showed up in New York and wiped out the American chestnut as it moved west. When the fungal blight crossed the Mississippi River in the 1950s, it jumped species and began annihilating the chestnut’s cousin, the Ozark chinquapin, which is sometimes called an Ozark chestnut.
“In one year’s time, all the chinquapins were dying,” Bost said. “The trees that were in the canopy were reduced to shrub status with sprouts. It was catastrophic.”
In his naturalist programs at state parks, Bost would tell of the demise of the chinquapin to raise awareness of this ecological disaster.
“I waited for somebody to do something, but nobody was,” he said. “What I knew about history and science, it was unusual for 100 percent of a species to be killed. You always have something survive, some type of mutation.
“In 2005, I started looking. It took four or five months, but I finally found my first healthy tree.”
Surviving Chinquapins Found in Six States
Today, Bost has set up the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation to help in his effort and has recruited nearly 1,000 members, including staff of Missouri State Parks, Missouri Department of Conservation, Arkansas Forestry, Hobbs State Park in Arkansas and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
The strengthened forces have located mature chinquapin trees that survived the blight in six different states. The large healthy trees are cross-pollinated, and their seeds are harvested and planted in protected research plots.
“We have 400 trees growing in five counties in Missouri, and about 100 in Arkansas – we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket,” Bost said. “What we have are genetics from trees that grew to full size; we hope the seed from those have some kind of genetic resistance to the blight.”
As he walked through the saplings on the rocky ridge top, the largest of which are robust and nearly 10 feet tall, Bost noted the numbers printed in black marker on the grow tubes that protect them from deer and other critters. From the markings, he can identify the source of each seed that was planted.
“This sapling is from the longest surviving chinquapin in the state of Arkansas,” he said. “This tree was bulldozed, but we gathered the nuts and saved its genetics.
“It’s taken a lot of work to get where we are today, but it’s a great feeling of accomplishment and something all of us involved can be proud of.”
A Modern-day Johnny Appleseed
The big test, however, is yet to come. Bost plans to take young trees from his plot and inoculate them with the blight and observe the result.
“It sounds real severe, but we’re trying to go from resistance to immunity to the blight,” he said. “If we inoculate 500 trees, and only have 12 that are immune to the blight, we will cross-pollinate those, and pull the 488 out of the ground that are more susceptible to the blight.
The long-term plan would be to introduce immune chinquapins to the Ozark forest. The foundation members took a baby step this spring by planting four blight-resistant seeds at Roaring River State Park. More plantings may be done at other parks this fall.
“We’ve been sending out hundreds of seeds to our foundation members,” Bost said. “Eventually, we’d like to make them available to everybody.”
Bost’s cohorts occasionally kid him that he is the Johnny Appleseed of Ozark chinquapins. Johnny Appleseed in real life was John Chapman, who planted apple trees in parts of the American wilderness in the early 1800s. A popular animated version had the character wearing a pot on his head.
“Trees can’t talk, so I’ve kind of been a spokesman for the trees,” Bost said. “But I don’t wear a pot on my head, I wear a Cardinals’ baseball cap.”