CASSVILLE, Mo. —
A revered tree in danger of extinction once saved Kenneth Ruark’s children.
Now, he’s trying to help save it.
On Friday, Ruark was among a roomful of landowners, conservationists, state and federal employees who gathered at the Emory Melton Inn & Conference Center at Roaring River State Park to share recollections of the Ozark chinquapin tree, to recognize accomplishments in preventing its further demise and to demonstrate ways in which individuals can help restore its numbers.
As a boy who grew up in the 1940s on a Washburn farm, Ruark pocketed the nuts from massive chinquapin trees that once covered much of the Ozarks.
“If you had a pocketful of chinquapins, you could buy about anything,” he said. “They were so useful that everyone I knew couldn’t hardly wait for chinquapin season to start.”
“Even prissy girls who would look down their nose at you would be your best buddy if you had a pocketful of chinquapins.”
In addition to being prized as a food for human consumption, the nuts have long been a valuable food source for wildlife, and the tree itself is prized for its strength and durability as a hardwood.
As a young father, the Barry County resident soon learned of the chinquapin’s medicinal value: He credited brewing its leaves into a tea with ridding his children of whooping cough, an illness for which there was no other cure.
Since then, botanists have confirmed a chemical in the leaves has medicinal properties.
But what scientists have not been able to do — not yet — is prevent the tree from being susceptible to an illness of its own: chestnut blight.
The disease came to the U.S. by way of a tree — a Chinese chestnut — planted in the Bronx Zoo at the turn of the last century. It quickly spread, at the rate of 20 miles annually, and left in its path an estimated 3.7 billion dead American chestnut trees.
When the blight crossed the Mississippi River to the Ozarks, it attacked the Ozark chinquapin, a type of chestnut.
In the 1930s, when Tino Burnett was growing up in the foothills of the Ozark mountains in Northeast Oklahoma, he knew well the value of the Ozark chinquapin tree.
“On our way walking to school, which was a couple miles, we’d fill our pockets,” said the Delaware County resident. “In the evening on the way, we filled our pockets.”
“Our teacher used them to teach us to count, to add, subtract, divide. My grandmother, who was part Cherokee, knew all about it as a food source.”
“And if you liked squirrels for meat, all you’d have to do is sit under a chinquapin tree, and mister, you’d have a lot of ’em.”
In his youth, the tree covered 40 percent of Missouri. It could outproduce most other trees in a forest: A mature chinquapin produces more than 6,000 nuts a year, in contrast to a mature white oak’s 2,000 or so a year.
Al Knox remembered the tree well from his days of attending school in the 1940s in Bentonville, Ark.
“I, too, stuffed my pockets full, took them to school and rolled them up the aisle between kids’ legs to bounce off of the wall and the blackboard,” said Knox, whose family has roots in the Big Sugar Creek area.
Through the decades, they watched as the chinquapin tree began disappearing and children no longer stuffed their pockets with its nuts.
Today, few trees remain, and most are in the most inaccessible of places — on south-facing slopes of rocky outcroppings high on hilltops.
Knox, now a hiking trail supervisor at Hobbs State Park, has discovered a handful there in the past decade and has begun efforts to save them.
Most stricken with blight are reduced to shrubby stumps, which then grow a bit and are struck by blight again, and so on, until the tree is no longer viable.
In contrast to those for whom the chinquapin figured prominently in their childhoods, Steve Bost didn’t hear about the tree until the late 1990s. A naturalist at Montauk State Park, he also is the founder of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation and has been likened to a modern-day Johnny Appleseed.
“I just don’t wear a pot on my head,” he said.
After learning of the “ghost tree,” he began a journey to see it restored to the Ozarks.
He began a complicated and tedious cross-pollination process in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
His goals: To restore the tree to its native range; to establish a viable seed base; to develop a 100 percent pure Ozark chinquapin that is disease-resistant; and to raise public awareness.
He has not been alone.
On Friday, Bost presented several awards to others who have embarked on the journey with him, including Russell Oake, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service whose efforts to save the chinquapin have been at “ground zero” in the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas.
“My mission was twofold,” Oake said. “Finding chinquapins in order to collect seeds to plant more, and to spread the word so others could get on board.”
Bost also recognized Steve Mowry, an avid outdoorsman and conservationist involved with the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation and the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Mowry is working on innovative ways to grow grafted chinquapins on clear-cut acreage, to establish chinquapin food plots appealing to deer hunters and to help create innovative streams of income for the foundation.
And Bost recognized Fayetteville, Ark., musicians Donna and Kelly Mulhollan, who performed original songs about the chinquapin tree for the group, for their fundraising efforts that have netted the foundation more than $3,000.
He presented them with a dulcimer fashioned from a chinquapin tree that fell during an extreme drought.
Bost noted that Cheyne Matzenbacher, a naturalist at Roaring River State Park and a member of the foundation, also has played a key role.
THE OZARK CHINQUAPIN FOUNDATION has distributed 1,600 seeds and has completed 93 cross-pollinations on the Missouri State Champion chinquapin tree, as well as numerous cross-pollinations on trees in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.