Chestnut Trees from Doerrenbach

by Bishop Jude Speyrer
In late October 2005, I went to Karlsruhe, Germany with Ivan Arceneaux, an old schoolmate of mine, for the 80th birthday celebration of a mutual friend, Roland Schmitt. I arranged to arrive a few days ahead of the birthday party in order to spend time in the Pfalz and take part in the closing days of that region’s wine harvest. Ivan and I stayed with Norbert & Christel Speyrer, at their invitation, in their splendid vacation cottage in Doerrenbach.

Although the grape harvest was in full swing in every hamlet, village and town, we were there only as bystanders. (Ivan and I are both close to our friend’s age but on the minus side, let me quickly add). Understandably, we were not interested in playing more of an active role other than that of fascinated observers.

Those who have visited the area around Doerrenbach and Bergzabern before will remember how close the two places are. Going from one to the other by car makes the distance about three times longer than the shortcut natives normally use. If you take this scenic route, accessible only by foot, you go through dense woods covering the gentle hills that separate the two places.

On the day of our October excursion, we were walking from the Speyrers (Doerrenbach) to the Lammerings (Bad Bergzabern). Ernst and Hedwig Lammering moved to Bad Bergzabern from Doerrenbach many years ago. Ernst’s wife, Hedwig, whose mother was a Speyrer, was born and raised in the village. (Hedwig’s mother Rosina and Norbert’s father Ludwig were first cousins.)

Ernst Lammering is now retired. Walking back and forth to work, he daily made the same trip that Ivan, Christel and I were now making. This practice started back when the couple got married. Ernst was employed in Bad Bergzabern as Custodian of public records in what would be our equivalent of the parish or county courthouse.

As a visitor in 1950 I, too, often walked to daily Mass using the same route we were taking on that crisp October day. Even though a bus ran daily between the two communities, I personally used it only once. This was when I first arrived with two suitcases so heavy that even as the twenty-one year old man I then was, I could not have carried them that far.

Did I describe the path through the woods as scenic? As one of Konrad Speyrer’s last views of home, it remains unchanged today after almost two hundred years. Judge for yourself; this is what it looks like today:

What make the woods so dense are the hundreds of gigantic chestnut trees. They were busy dropping their fruit and we wayfarers needed care to avoid walking on it. Some of the spiny cupules carrying the nuts had already opened. Bending over, I reached to pick up four nuts to slip into my pocket. I was determined to try once again to carry chestnuts back with me to plant on the property that Konrad Speyrer acquired after arriving in Saint Landry Parish.

This was not my first attempt. About a dozen years earlier I tried to do the very same thing with several wonderful specimens that I brought back to Louisiana. Alas, not one of them germinated. I knew I had done something wrong so I set about reading up on chestnuts and learn how to get them started.

The trick, I was told, was to let the nuts first hibernate in the kitchen refrigerator. Following instructions, I put the four I came home with in a freezer bag in slightly moistened sphagnum moss, and promptly forgot them. Four months later when I checked on them I noticed the beginning of small roots breaking through their tough shells. A couple of weeks later I planted each nut in potting soil; happily, all four sprouted. This is what they look like today:

The land Konrad bought and farmed in south Leonville is in the area known as Pointe Claire. Today, it is owned by my sister Alice. She and Ralph Finley, her husband, (now deceased), bought the place when Ralph retired and closed his medical practice. I am pleased to say that with her permission Pointe Claire is one of the sites these new trees will occupy when transplanting time comes this fall. Should Ernst Lammering or Norbert or Christel Speyrer ever return to Leonville they will see a familiar tree from home, as unexceptional there as pecan trees are here.

For more information on Chestnut trees, read on. One encyclopedia I consulted (Columbia University Press) had this to say about chestnut trees in the United States: Chestnut is the name for any species of the genus Castanea, deciduous trees of the family Fagaceae (beech or oak family) widely distributed in the Northern Hemisphere. They are characterized by thin-shelled, sweet, edible nuts borne in a bristly bur. The common American chestnut, C. dentata, is native E of the Mississippi but is now nearly extinct because of the chestnut blight, a disease from Asia caused by the fungus Crypthonectria parasitica, and the clear-cutting that resulted when lumber companies anticipated the destruction of chestnut forests by the fungus.

The American chestnut was an important source of timber. Efforts are being made to breed a type of American chestnut resistant to the disease, by crossing it with the blight-resistant Chinese and Japanese chestnuts, in order to replace the old chestnut forests. The dead and fallen logs were long the the leading domestic source of tannin. Chestnut wood is porous, but it is very durable in soil and has been popular for fence posts, railway ties, and beams. Edible chestnuts are now mostly imported from Italy, where the Eurasian species (C. sativa) has not been destroyed. The chinquapin belongs to the same genus. Chestnuts are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Fagales, family Fagaceae When the time to eat these chestnuts comes (Norbert Speyrer says that the Doerrenbach variety matures quickly and bears early) here are the instructions, (again from the same encyclopedia), on how to prepare them:

The nuts are most commonly eaten candied or roasted; the former are often sold under the French name marrons glacés. One easy method for roasting is to cut an 'X' in the top of each nut and heat in a shallow container, tossing occasionally, at 200C/400F for 30 minutes. The encyclopedia article (Columbia University Press) also comes with a magnificent hand drawing.

Bishop Jude Speyrer

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