We’ve all heard the Christmas Song, the one that starts, “Chestnuuuuuts roasting on an open fiiiiire.”
But how many of us have actually eaten them?
The stewards behind two Bay Area chestnut orchards are on a mission to help more people learn about — and enjoy — these round, prickly-packaged treats. While Weylin and Rose Eng, an 80-year-old Orinda couple, find joy in distributing their farm-grown chestnuts from Winters, Hans Johsens offers visitors willing to trek into the Santa Cruz Mountains a chance to harvest their own from trees that date back to the Gold Rush.
In general, Californians are not as familiar with chestnuts — outside holiday song lyrics anyway — as East Coasters, Europeans and people from areas of Asia where chestnut trees are native, Weylin says. Chestnut trees were once so abundant on the East Coast, legend had it that a squirrel could travel from New England to Georgia by scampering through the branches of the trees, never once touching the ground.
But the tree species went nearly extinct about a century ago, thanks to Cryphonectria parasitica, a parasitic fungus.
Hans Johsens shows off some of the early harvest collected at Skyline Chestnut In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Today, the number of cultivated chestnut orchards occupies just 4,200 acres across 1,600 orchards nationwide, according to a 2021 report by the Savanna Institute, an agroforestry nonprofit.
One of those belongs to the Engs. It was a bit of a happy accident when Weylin and Rose went looking for a walnut orchard for their retirement passion project – farming – in 2008. Instead, they wound up purchasing a chestnut orchard planted about a decade prior for research purposes by former UC Davis professor Kay Ryugo.
“It was just a fluke that we got into chestnuts,” Weylin says.
A chestnut breaks free from its burr at Hans Johsens’ Skyline Chestnut in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
And while Weylin and Rose – a former UC Berkeley optometry professor and a community college and high school math teacher, respectively – just celebrated their 80th birthdays, they show no signs of slowing down. They spent days this fall delivering 25-pound bags of chestnuts from their Winters farm to Bay Area food markets including Berkeley Bowl.
There’s a sense of righting a historic wrong powering the effort, too. Weylin, a seventh-generation Californian and Chinese American, says previous generations of his family were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act and weren’t permitted to purchase property of their own, despite being knowledgeable farmers.
Today, the Engs’ chestnut farm covers about 18 acres, and is used not just for growing those nuts but for chestnut research. They’ve worked with UC Davis professor Glen Fox, for example, who is analyzing the possibility of brewing chestnut beer, which is naturally gluten-free.
With the help of his employee Amanda Nance, Hans Johsens prepares for the onslaught of harvest season visitors to his Skyline Chestnut In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Farming is full of challenges, says Weylin, who calls it “the ultimate in gambling,” with years of drought and water shortages, and then last winter, a late season deluge that flooded many of their fields, leaving tree roots susceptible to root rot.
But, he says, “it’s good for your health. It’s good for your soul.”
Prefer to gather your own? Head for La Honda’s Skyline Chestnuts, where 20 acres of heritage chestnut trees have been growing quietly in the Santa Cruz Mountains since the Gold Rush. Skyline Chestnuts offers a U-Pick program that runs from late October until about Thanksgiving.
Planted in the mid-19th century, the orchard is now owned by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and under the stewardship of Hans Johsens. The former Christmas tree farmer began managing the farm in 2004 under an annual license that allows the public to gather chestnuts each fall.
Hans Johsens prepares for the onslaught of harvest season visitors to his Skyline Chestnut In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
“This is one of the last, great, old-growth chestnut orchards,” says Suzanne Bailey, who works at the orchard. “It survived by being so isolated.”
Chestnut trees can live for thousands of years. The oldest known living chestnut tree — the Hundred Horse Chestnut — sits on the slopes of Italy’s Mount Etna and is estimated to be 2,000 to 4,000 years old.
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Johsens believes the Skyline trees were likely planted by immigrants and miners who brought the seedlings from their home countries. “The people who planted (them) had generational knowledge,” he says. They knew what they were choosing, from the slopes to the soils, to the misty air that ensured the trees didn’t need a watering system. But as climate change shifts mist and fog patterns, the lack of a watering system may pose future challenges to the orchard’s health, Johsens says.
Details: Skyline Chestnuts opens at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday-Sunday and closes when the day’s harvest has been picked; on weekends, that may be as early as 12:30 p.m. Wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes. The farm provides buckets and leather gloves. Chestnuts are $10.50 per pound; $10 if you pay cash). Make parking reservations at www.skylinechestnuts.com, if you plan to arrive between 9:30 and noon. 22322 Skyline Blvd., La Honda