The gentleman farmer, the potato leaf hopper and the midnight burrower

Posted on July 10, 2010


Before I ring the bell, I always stop to admire the view.  I was back at Bob Haack’s chestnut orchard on Friday morning, catching up on progress and trying to keep the Fundamentals of Chestnut Husbandry straight.  (Bob, you will recall, is a Forest Entomologist at the day job and a Chestnut Grower at home.)  You would think that chestnut romance would be a fairly straightforward matter, but you would be wrong.  It is an epic struggle worthy of poetry.  Here are the things I have learned:

  • Female flowers—the ones that actually produce the burrs full of nuts—grow way out on the leading edge of chestnut tree growth, the Terminal Buds.  They are little things, not showy at all, but manage to create enormous prickly monsters.
  • Male flowers are quite showy—long and fluffy and fragrant—unless they are sterile varieties, in which case they are merely Interesting.
  • Chestnuts are firm believers in diversity.  The female flower of any chestnut variety must be fertilized by pollen from a male chestnut flower of a different variety.
  • An orchardist cannot, therefore, settle on a good nut producer and be done with it.  No, the poor guy has to figure out what other varieties are likely to produce lots of pollen at the strategic time, and plant some of those, too.
  • The male flowers of some varieties are sterile.  Those varieties can earn their keep if hardworking female flowers produce lots of nuts, but they don’t do their share in the pollenizing department.
  • Some varieties are prodigious pollenizers but don’t yield many chestnuts.  Not at home, anyway.  They just make lots of chestnuts on other trees. 
  • Chestnuts have no truck with birds and bees; they rely on the wind for pollination.  The bees do not take offense, and happily gather sweet sustenance among the chestnut flowers anyway.
  • Michigan weather can make a nut orchardist despair.  This year’s early warming brought out early buds . . . the better to kill them off with a hard freeze in May. The trees are thriving, but production will be way down this year among the early flowering varieties—the walnuts and heartnuts and the beloved Bob 93 Chestnut, the pride of the orchard.
  • Potato leaf hoppers, of all things, are a bane to chestnut trees.  They blow in from the south on a summer wind, suck out vital juices, turn the leaves sickly, and generally wreak havoc.  Then they drop dead during the winter freeze.  It is possible to track their progress online—they’ve reached Missouri—they’re in northern Illinois—they’ve crossed into Michigan, GAHHH!—the better to time a judicious application of hopper-cide.
  • When I wrote about the chestnut orchard in early spring we all learned that the burrs are deadly and sneaky, too.  Now, in the full flush of summer, it turns out a person can break a leg wandering around under chestnut trees.  No ladders required.  Just step in the enormous burrow Something has dug since 8:30 last night when you were out here taking advantage of the last of the daylight in order to finish the mowing.  That burrow wasn’t there then you mutter as you tend your ankle.

Given all that, you’d think Bob might become discouraged, but no. He’s a natural born optimist and stubborn, too—plus he has that day job. He’s going to keep tending the nut orchard, and the meadow where the meadowlarks nest.  We’ll visit again later in the summer.  Maybe even gather some chestnuts this fall.  And admire the view.