Chestnuts appear in the fossil record over 85 Million years ago, in North America, Europe and Asia. The 13 existing species of the chestnut genus all inter-hybridize readily, indicating that they are not highly differentiated from the parent species.

EUROPE

The European Chestnut is native to the forests of the Caucasus region around the Black Sea. Chestnut is thought to have gotten its name from the city Kastanis in what is now Georgia on the east side of the Black Sea, and has been cultivated in this region for thousands of years. The Arabic word ‘kastanat’ and Persian word ‘kastana’ originate from the Sanskrit word ‘kashta’ which means tree. Chestnut was the most important tree species in ancient eastern Europe.

Chestnut was transported west to Greece over 4,000 years ago, and Homer wrote about chestnut, calling the nuts “marronia”. Theophrastus, the Greek ‘father of botany’ called chestnut the “Dios balanos” or the Zeus Acorn (God’s acorn). The physician Hippocrates, the Prophet Isaia, and the historian Xenophon all wrote of chestnut. There are several towns in Greece today called Kastania. The nuts were harvested and exported in trade with other countries. In Turkey today there are extensive chestnut forests both wild and cultivated, and there are individual chestnut trees that are more than 1,000 years old still alive. Imagine the bounty that such a tree has produced throughout its life!

Merchants of ancient Rome brought chestnut back with them. Because of its many uses, chestnut was prized by the Romans and spread throughout their empire all over Europe – in Spain, Germany, France and as far north as England. Today, in old Roman villages and settlements you can find chestnuts and grapes planted as part of the way to provide food and wood for the legionnaires. For instance, there are chestnut trees growing along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, constructed by the Romans to keep the wild Scottish tribes out of their settlements further south.

The Romans embarked on a process to improve the quality of the nuts and wood, orchards were planted with grafted trees, and forests in the mountainous regions were established for wood production where traditional agriculture was not possible due to the steep slopes. The monks at monasteries kept the knowledge on how to graft and propagate the trees. King Charlemagne directed planting of chestnuts during his reign. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, author and army commander, discussed the planting of chestnuts in his work Naturalis Historia.

Old grafted chestnut, Galicia Spain
Today the results of these efforts over the centuries have created different quality chestnuts based on their characteristics. European chestnut varieties are divided into two types – the large, sweet-flavored nuts called marroni that are more readily peeled, and the less flavorful, smaller more wild-type nuts called castagna or chataignes that are difficult to peel.

Today, much of the mountain regions of Italy are chestnut forest, both cultivated for nut production and uncultivated, that is used for timber and coppice. There are grafted orchards with trees that are 500 years old still being harvested every year. The 1000 year old Chestnut of a Hundred Horses still lives on the side of Mt. Etna, which sheltered Joanna of Aragon and a hundred knights and horses.

Chestnut orchards, Avellina Itlay
The main areas of production in Italy are Piemonte in the north, Tuscany and Umbria in central Italy, and Campania and Calabria in the south. Italy is one of the principal exporters of fresh chestnuts to Europe and the United States, despite weathering an attack by the Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp.

Spain, France and Portugal all have thriving chestnut export industries, as well as Turkey. Most of the other European countries that can grow chestnuts have established industries that provide nuts for their local economy.

Europeans have taken chestnuts with them in their colonization of the world.There are orchard industries in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, where the climate supports chestnut growth. Australia also has a small chestnut industry that exports primarily to Japan during the opposite season, as well as provides for its diverse ethnic populations.