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'CHINKYPIN' TRIO: Al Knox, Steve Chyrchel and Roland Goicoechea.


40 MAY 2019



f you are lucky, you might come across an Ozark chinquapin oak in a sunny spot up in Northwest Arkansas. If you are extra lucky, it might have sweet nuts nestled in its bur-covered seed cases, which bear a slight resemblance to tiny green porcupines. Lucky because the same fungal blight that wiped out the American chestnut also largely took out its cousin, the chinquapin (Castenea ozarkensis), in the 1950s. That same tree you find might also succumb in time. But just as biologists are working to bring back Longfellow’s spreading tree, so, too, is the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, which has been working with staff at Hobbs State Park, encompassing parts of Madison, Benton and Carroll counties, to breed a blight-resistant “chinkypin.” Hobbs’ chinquapin project germinated 17 years ago, when trail maintenance supervisor Al Knox found a tree in Van Winkle Hollow in the park. Knox’s third-person essay of his discovery can be found on the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation’s website ( “Wooah! His face almost smashed into a cluster of green and brown spiny burs on a low-hanging tree limb. … He got a flash of joy! ‘That’s a chinkypin bur! … I haven’t seen one of them in over 50 years!’ ” Knox, now in his mid-80s, began to hunt for more of the trees, and Hobbs ranger Steve Chyrchel, too, got the chinquapin bug. Knox “was telling me about how delicious the seeds were and how the kids would play a game called hully-gully,” a guessing game about how many nuts were hidden in a player’s hand, Chyrchel said. They began supplying the Chinquapin Foundation, which is headquartered in Missouri, with nuts from the Hobbs trees. “After a number of years of us giving [the foundation] seeds, they contacted us and said, ‘Would you like to try some cross-pollination?’ ” Chyrchel said. “We had no idea what we were doing, so we said yes.” They would use the park’s tree found by Knox. Cross-pollination involves taking pollen from trees that have not yet shown signs of blight and dusting the pistels — the female parts — of other seemingly healthy chinquapins. “It’s hard to kill off an entire species,” Chyrchel said. “So even though the majority died, every once in a while you find one that is not affected by the blight. And we are finding these trees and getting nuts off the trees.” In 2011, Chyrchel pollinated 50 pis-

tels on the Hobbs chinquapin with pollen gathered from chinquapins found in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri and put paper bags over the pollinated parts to keep other unwanted pollen off the pistels. “We ended up with 32 viable seeds,” Chyrchel said, and sent them off to the foundation. Only one of the seeds successfully produced a tree, the ranger said, “but it survived, and that tree is 8 years old and they got 2,700 seeds off that tree last fall.” Now, Chyrchel is growing trees on a 2-acre test plot at Hobbs. The park planted 50 trees in 2014. After the first year, half died. But repeating the back-crossing, the park continues to plant trees, and is now getting help from students in the environmental club at Rogers High School, who take measurements, note if bugs are eating leaves, make sure there is water and perform other tasks. There are 40 trees growing now, some as tall as 8 feet. But chinquapins can grow to 10 or 15 feet before succumbing to the fungal spores that cause blight. Still, with repeat back-pollination, Chyrchel believes a blight-resistant seed can be developed and the Ozarks can once again become home to a healthy populatoin of the tree. Chyrchel, Knox and former Hobbs volunteer coordinator Roland Goicoechea are working on a management plan for the chinquapin project. Knox said the Ozark chinquapin was once a reliable food source to animals when late frosts hurt acorn production: The chinquapin flowers in late May and early June, sending up white spikes, after the threat of frost has passed. Restoring the chinquapin to the Ozarks would benefit wildlife and the health of the forest. Because of its rot resistance, the chinquapin was used for fences and railroad ties. The tree is so rot resistant, UA Fayetteville geoscientist Dr. Frederick Paillet said, that you can still find fallen chinquapins in the woods, dead for more than 50 years. “You could cut boards from some of these trees,” Paillet said. Paillet’s study of chinquapins concerned climate differences and the role of the tree in the forests of the Ozarks. For years, Paillet said, the chinquapin was the Rodney Dangerfield of trees (“I don’t get no respect” was the comedian’s line). Finally, there are efforts to save it. But, Paillet said, it’s going to take years of work and the input of geneticists — the way the American chestnut is coming back — to bring the “chinkypin” back to the Ozarks. — Leslie Newell Peacock

Profile for Arkansas Times

Arkansas Times | May 2019  


Arkansas Times | May 2019