This article was originally published in our June 2021 issue. 

Our State Motto: Salus populi suprema lex esto, “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.”

When Steve Bost was growing up in the Bootheel, his family made frequent visits to a cabin on the Current River. Years later, the land became part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, and Steve often returned with his own kids to hunt and camp at the remote location.

It was here, three decades ago, that Steve first heard stories of a mysterious Ozark tree.

An old outdoorsman named Hearold Adams spent weeks at a time camping nearby. Steve sometimes stopped by to talk about how the hunting went, and during one visit, Hearold told him about the most important tree in the forest: the Ozark chinquapin, Castanea ozarkensis.

“He said, ‘The trees are all gone, and nobody’s heard of them,’ ” Steve says.

The tree was once known for its delicious nuts. Steve wondered why nobody else had heard of the chinquapin. He discovered modern tree maps that gave it an exceedingly small range: extreme southwest Missouri and parts of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Another older map showed it was much more prevalent. Steve was intrigued.

He learned the tree, once a keystone species of the Ozarks, was thought to be extinct, a casualty of the chestnut blight that arrived in this country around 1904. By World War II, it had arrived in the Ozarks, and within a decade the chinquapin was virtually wiped out. All that remained were the tree’s rot-resistant trunks on the forest floor.

But Steve, a naturalist at Montauk State Park, knew it was rare for a pathogen to kill 100 percent of a population. Inspired by Hearold, he set off in search of a living specimen. Experts told him he was wasting his time, that the tree no longer existed. If there was a healthy tree that had survived the blight, they’d know about it.

The Ozark chinquapin has distinctive burs. The nuts were once an important food source for a variety of wildlife, including deer, bear, turkey, and squirrels.

Finally, in the winter of 2006, Steve made a thrilling discovery: a living chinquapin on a hilltop just across the state line in Arkansas. It was like winning the lottery.

“This was a tree that was not supposed to be in existence, and there it was,” Steve says.

A year after his discovery, he founded the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation. The nonprofit organization has a simple, but challenging goal: to restore a pure Ozark chinquapin tree with a natural blight resistance to its native range. Restoration efforts center around a breeding program using seeds from blight-resistant trees; the foundation has identified forty-seven of them still living in the wild. The organization set up six test plots in 2007 and will plant its eighteenth this year. There are now around a thousand blight-resistant chinquapins growing on the test plots in three states. Most are in Missouri, with others in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The locations of all of them are a tightly guarded secret. Steve doesn’t even record GPS coordinates.

“We’re breeding for resistance, but on the other side of the coin we’re also saving genetic diversity,” Steve says. “Some trees that may not be that resistant—we’re still saving them because they represent a living genetic bank.”

The organization uses cutting-edge technology to test for resistance. That process used to mean inoculating five hundred of the best trees with blight and then monitoring them for five years looking for survivors. Now it takes a matter of days, testing detached leaves in a laboratory setting.

Steve Bost plants an Ozark chinquapin tree on a research test plot.

“This new technology has pushed us ahead by one decade easily,” Steve says.

The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation now includes six hundred to eight hundred active members who pay thirty dollars annually. In return, the foundation mails thousands of seeds to them every year. Chinquapins are reliable producers. They bloom in late May or early June. They are prolific, too; a seven- or eight-year-old tree can drop five thousand or more nuts every fall. Steve compares the taste to a really sweet almond.

“I’ve never seen wildlife go after these like they do,” Steve says. “It’s absolutely unreal. They will walk over red oak and white oak acorns to eat this.”

The wood is prized for its rot-resistance and was used as lumber for barns, furniture, railroad ties, and fence posts. Five years ago, chinquapin wood was used to build a plaque for Hearold. When it was presented to him, Steve told him it was “for inspiring us to do what we’re doing.”

Hearold died in 2019 at the age of ninety-nine, but the story he told Steve three decades ago lives on.

“The forest we have today is different than what Hearold had growing up in his time,” Steve says. “But if we all try to make a difference, our forest today can be a better place for wildlife and even for our children to inherit.”

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