THE CULTIVATION OF CHESTNUTS
Palaeontological findings have proved that chestnut trees exist since the Tertiary Period in Europe (65-70 million years ago). Weather conditions were favorable and the tree spread due north. Fossils of chestnut seeds and leaves of the Tertiary Period were found in Greenland, Alaska and the Scandinavian countries. In addition fossils of chestnut trees were found in Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Former Yugoslavia, Austria and Hungary.
In the course of time the climatic changes restricted chestnut trees in Europe from Spain and Portugal to Caucasus and the Mediterranean Countries.
Main producers of chestnuts today are Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. The last few years however because of the desertion or the pause of systematic cultivation chestnut production has decreased. Although Agiasos chestnuts are organically farmed because they’re cultivated in a primitive and circumstantial way there is a constant decrease of the production due to chestnut diseases, low prices and the absence of countervailing financial support.
Chestnuts are usually affected by melanosis, ulcer, birdlime, “karpokapsa”, pink and red worm affecting the seeds, black afida damaging young leaves and sprouts as well as woodworms which degrade the quality of chestnut wood.
The production and quality of chestnuts are also affected by climatic conditions especially early rains, which have lately become quite rare.
In addition, chestnut wood is really valuable because of its durability. For years it was used for furniture, roofs, and “sahnisinia” (wooden upper floors). Unfortunately, high prices and the loss of durability due to diseases lead people to buy imported wood.
Soil coming from chestnut leaves and seeds is an excellent fertilizer for other plants.
Honey coming from chestnuts has a distinctive aroma and slightly bitter taste. It thickens slowly in one to two years; it has highly bacteriostatic qualities and withstands differences in temperature much better than other kinds of honey. Chestnut honey is good for blood circulation and cases of dysentery. Therefore, the benefits of chestnut cultivation are many and varied.
AGIASOS CHESTNUT GROVE
The Chestnut grove of Agiasos is an unsurpassable natural gem of the mountainous range of Olympus. It spreads in an area of 11,000 sq. Klm. It is a habitat of unique importance and the dwelling of rare geophytes. For many centuries it was the main source of income for the people of Agiasos.
According to Stratis P. Kolaxizelis chestnuts were brought from Asia during the period of the Roman Occupation (88BC-395AD). After the terrible frost in 1950 where most of the olive trees where destroyed people of Agiasos decided to turn to other cultivations so as not to depend only on olives as their main source of income. Therefore, they cleaned their chestnut groves from weeds, they grafted in their fruit trees, they turned their creek banks into arable land and orchards and cultivated potatoes for the first time. After the distractive fire in 1877, wild chestnut sprouts, which grew on the old burned trunks, were grafted in and by the end of the Turkish occupation they were producing more than 300,000 kilos a year. During the German occupation thousands of lives were saved from famine in the terrible winter of 1941-1942 due to chestnuts.
However, in the present day very few people walk the cobble-paved paths in order to collect chestnuts because of the socioeconomic changes, which have led to rural exodus, and chestnut diseases, which have dramatically reduced production. Despite all these, Agiasos chestnuts are thought to be the best in the area and there is still a great demand of the product in the local market.
The mountainous area of Olympus, covered with chestnut groves as well as other kinds of trees, is the most important habitat for the unique flora and fauna of the area. Species protected both by the Greek and the European laws dwell here. There are 12 different species of orchids rare not only for Greece but Europe as well and they’re protected by the CITES Agreement.
Nowadays many locals and foreigners visit Agiasos to admire and study the immense wealth of Olympus forests which form a botanic paradise. The Municipality of Agiasos sees the development of Eco-tourism as a necessity. At the same time efforts are made to confront scientifically the diseases destroying chestnut trees so as to improve both the quantity and the quality of the product which is one of the basic factors of their economy.
Here we’re going to refer to two chestnut diseases, which are destructive for the trees and worst of all are extremely difficult to confront.
Until recently producers knew only about “karpokapsa”, the pink and red worm which affect the seeds (a disease of the seed), the black afida which destroys the leaves and tender sprouts as well as the woodworms which downgrade the quality of chestnut wood.
However, most dangerous diseases are Melanosis and Ulcer which we have believed that concerned only other Greek areas such as Chalkidiki, Castoria, Fthiotida and Magnisia. Further laboratory research by the Institute of Forest Research on area samples have proved that ulcers will be a disease we must get acquainted with in Agiasos too.
Melanosis and Ulcer are contagious diseases caused by a fungus transmitted from tree to tree with destructive results.
Melanosis, the most destructive disease for chestnuts is caused by the fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi and Phytophthora cambivora. Infection starts from the root and ends in the trunk where the disease becomes obvious. As a result the cambium is destroyed, the root stops evolving, the bark splits and there is an outflow of juice which, due to the oxidation of the tannins it contains, turns black and thus the disease is called melanosis.
In the beginning these ulcers confine themselves on one side of the trunk however as the disease spreads the ulcers cover the entire trunk. The symptoms of this infection are expressed with a progressive drying up of the top of the tree and are:
- The leaves turn yellow but don’t drop
- They seem dehydrated
- The urchins are revealed
- The following spring there are many dead young sprouts
- In the next years the disease spreads slowly and this causes the death of the trees
- All these can last up to 10 years.
Ulcer is caused by the fungus cryptonectria paracitica which affects all the upper part of the chestnut (trunk and branches). It develops quickly and dries the places it sets on.
Ulcers on young branches are yellow-red or brown-red and are easily distinguished when compared to the colour of a healthy bark. If the parasite brings about the deadening of the bark or the cambium then the ulcer appears sunken. If the cambium is not destroyed then new layers of bark are created and the ulcer spreads, swells and develops long cracks.
In the course of time ulcers become irregular and the surface of the trunk gets wrinkly while in the end pieces of bark fall from the tree. The fungus’ spores, called “piknidia” have the size of a pin and are orange; they form a layer and are surrounded by a slimy substance. They attach themselves on birds and insects and get transferred to other plants at short or long distances. Infected young trees die in 3-4 years while the older ones in 8-10 years. We won’t make further reference to the diseases destroying the chestnut trees or their ways to fight them.
Chestnut trees are important for the area because they give seeds yearly, their wood is valuable, and they grow and spread quickly in altitudes of 400 to 1000m. They are perfect habitats for the wild fauna since their seeds are highly nutritional. Their forests are very beautiful and they’re considered an appropriate species for organic farming. They’re resistant to fire and are subsidized by the European community law 1257/1999 and the program of young farmers’ aid.
Chestnut trees grow at an altitude of 300-1300 m. However, it doesn’t give fruit when it grows in areas over 1000-1100m. Chestnuts have the same nutritional value as mushrooms and potatoes. They’re rich in vitamin C that doesn’t get altered when chestnuts are boiled or roasted. Greece produces about 15,000 tones of chestnuts every year. Agiasos used to produce 140-150 tons. Chestnuts are used in making comfitures, marmalades, truffles chocolate sweets even bread.
Chestnuts need soil rich in acids, meaning PH 5.5-6.5, that can’t be used in other cultivations. Although they can be affected by various pests or diseases, Chestnuts are perennial trees, they become very tall and give satisfactory crops for over a hundred years when healthy. There are six diseases of the root, trunk and branches, ten pests and diseases of the leaves and seeds and six leaf and wood-eating insects. Chestnuts are also susceptible to frost, solar burns and asphyxiation of their roots.
Agiasos chestnuts are a product of organic farming. The quality and quantity of the production depends on the climatic conditions, mainly the early rains.
Chestnut wood has been really valuable to the people of Agiasos since it has been used for many years in the construction business and carpentry. Today its use has decreased due to the lower cost of imported wood. Woodcutting gives 180-200 cubic metres of chestnut wood every year.
Chestnut poles are also used in fencing. However lately they’re being replaced by metal ones coming from recycled material. Long chestnut poles are also used in the gathering of olives. 90% of Lesvos olive trees are shaken with chestnut poles. This means that in a fruitful year 11,000 to 12,000 such poles are used giving to Agiasos about 500,000 to 600,000 Euro a year. Cutting wood for chestnut poles is free. Any other kind of woodcutting in the area needs a special permit from the Forestry Department.
Chestnut soil coming from the rotten chestnut seeds, urchins or leaves is used for the cultivation of flowers such as camellias, gardenias, jasmines and hydrangeas.
Municipal Unit of Agiasos