OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Retired naturalist, others dedicate themselves to resuscitating Ozark Chinquapin trees

Group pushes to revive Ozark Chinquapin

When he was a young boy, Fayetteville mayor Lioneld Jordan and his friends would collect the porcupine-like burrs of the Ozark Chinquapin and hammer the husks with the heels of their shoes to get the acorn-sized "chinkeypins" inside. They'd fill their pockets with these nuts for snacking or for trading currency. With a flavor that's been compared to Hawaii's famous macadamia nuts, this food of the forest was in high demand by all kinds of critters including kids.

Once upon a time this tree, a member of the chestnut family, and not to be confused with a chinkapin oak, had ranges extending into Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas, and beyond as well as the Ozark regions in Missouri and Arkansas where it got its name. But, by the 1950s an invasive blight, believed imported with Chinese chestnut trees decades earlier, had infected and begun to ravage the native American chestnut and its cousins. An estimated 3 billion chestnuts died and with them went a keystone food source for wildlife and humans. National Geographic describes a keystone species as, "an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem. Without its keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether."

Believed to be gone forever, the Ozark Chinquapin was somewhat forgotten until recent years when a few survivors have been identified. However, quite often these survivors are just root sprouts from dead stumps. Some even manage to grow for a few years before the blight finds them and the dying and resprouting begins again. But some, about 1% to 2% of these surviving wild trees, are miraculously still flowering and fruiting. And here a love story begins.

It takes passion to pursue something others have declared hopeless, but that's what makes some folks tick. They don't like and are challenged by the word "hopeless." In the case of this tree, Missouri State Parks naturalist (now retired) Steve Bost became a relentless investigator in search of what still might be out there. Guided by tips from Ozarkers and obsession, in 2006 he found a living adult chinquapin on an Arkansas hilltop. By 2021 he had tracked down about 47 trees, mainly in Arkansas and Missouri, although the searches have covered many miles in several states.

By 2007 Bost had founded the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, and its devoted volunteers continue researching these biological remnants. They collect pollen and hand-pollinate the healthy survivors, collect their seed, establish test plots, and grow seedlings, all tedious procedures.

With trees, decades can pass before getting data that reflect success, and things are looking good so far. But this is a very fragile stage and seed producing trees need protection from foragers and life's mishaps. Young trees need protection from fire, herbicides, and nibbling wildlife.

Taking care to keep this resistant Castanea ozarkensis genetic line as pure as they found it, these chinquapin devotees are working for a day when this valuable tree is once again a major player in forest ecosystems. That's asking a lot considering the tremendous changes in the botanical makeup of forests since the tree essentially disappeared, and, of course, from whatever climate change is doing to all forests.

Their research is diversified. There are ongoing studies on the nutritional value of chinquapins (one of the highest of all nuts); tests on leaves to determine blight resistance strength of genes (work that Bost's daughter, Leslie, is pursuing); pollinator identification and behavior; medicinal properties (Native Americans and early settlers used the bark for numerous ailments); wildlife reproduction links to the chinquapin's heavy annual nut production, etc. This wondrous hardwood is also willing to live on rocky slopes and ridges, is drought tolerant, and has rot-resistant wood once used for fence posts, railroad ties, barrels, furniture, and barns.

The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation (ozarkchinquapin.com) memberships help keep the restoration of these trees ongoing and when available, seeds and planting instructions will be provided to members if they wish to personally help bring the Ozark Chinquapin back.

Donna and Kelly Mulhollan, the musical duo Still On the Hill, serve on the foundation's board and have hosted educational chinquapin programs. They also perform their chinquapin song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PV4FRNQItJM), which weaves in Mayor Jordan's childhood memory.

"Grandpa says when times were tough, we'd count on that old tree.

"Fightin' off squirrels, we'd gather nuts and feed our family.

"To keep them pods from poking you, us kids would whack em' with a shoe.

"Fill our pale and our pockets too, and eat em' all the way to school."