With the exception of AU Premier and AU Encore, the new varieties grow to heights of 30 to 40 feet. As seguin cultivars, the Premier and Encore average only 15 to 19 feet in height. The chestnuts produced by the different trees vary in size, but Dozier describes the taste of all the cultivars as “excellent, very sweet.” 

Wildlife apparently agree.

“We couldn’t get accurate yields on these cultivars because of extremely heavy wildlife feeding, so we rated the trees for crop load instead,” he says. They did so by installing 6-foot-tall chicken wire cages around individual trees, placing tarps beneath the canopies just prior to nut drop and then collecting the nuts from those above-ground tarps every day until the last nuts fell.

The eight cultivars are third-generation descendents of Chinese chestnuts that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and Auburn horticulture personnel gathered in China’s Hubei province in the early 1930s and planted on a horticulture research farm on the Auburn campus for breeding research.

The breeding project was motivated in large part by a fungus — specifically, a ferocious chestnut blight fungus that had accidentally been imported from Asia in 1900 and, by 1940, had destroyed the 4 billion American chestnut trees that had dominated U.S. forests for centuries.

Chinese chestnuts, however, were immune to the disease, and thus became a subject of interest to the research world. Most of the research focused on breeding the Chinese species’ blight-resistance gene into American chestnuts, but at Auburn, the goal was to develop new, improved varieties of the foreign tree.

From the initial planting at Auburn, researchers selected about 2,000 seedlings from the top-performing female trees and, using controlled mass pollination techniques, produced the second generation of Chinese chestnuts at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s Piedmont Research Unit in Camp Hill.

Researchers released three cultivars — AU Cropper, AU Leader and AU Homestead — from that generation in the early 1980s.

In 1990, the best seedlings from those three varieties were chosen, and scientists established the third generation via the mass pollination method. The newly patented “wildlife” cultivars, then, all are offspring of Cropper, Leader or Homestead.

Wayne Bassett of The Wildlife Group said the two four-cultivar packages will be available later this year, though supplies may be limited. The four, year-old individually grafted seedlings in the two packages will come in three-gallon containers and stand from 12 to 24 inches tall. The trees grow vigorously and should be producing nuts within two to three years, he said.

Though bred for wildlife purposes, the nuts that the new cultivars produce are excellent for human consumption, too. Dozier says, however, that he will start the patent-application process soon on another cultivar that produces exceptional chestnuts. Selling the nuts fresh from the farm or to local grocers and restaurants could provide a new source of income for growers.