The Chataignier Tree


The Castanea Tree
And the Chastain Surname

Surnames come from a variety of sources. Some are colors: Brown, White, Black, Green. Some are for ancestors: Johnson, O'Conner, McDonald, Fitzpatrick. Some are occupations: Cook, Mason, Carpenter, Fisher. Sometimes the same name comes to us in different languages. Smith (metal-worker), for example, also comes to us as Schmidt (German), Kovac (Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovak), Goff (Irish, Welch), Lefevre (French), Herrera (Spanish), and Khaddad (Arabic).

Chastains are named for a tree—Castanea, the chestnut (also called the Sweet Chestnut). The Sweet Chestnut, with edible nuts, is distinguished from the Horse Chestnut, which produces inedible nuts. In French, it is the Chataignier. Throughout Europe, the similarity among names for the tree is obvious.

TREE Chataignier Castaņo Castagno
NUT Chatain or Marron Castaņa Castagna

Portuguese Estonian Czech Polish Slovenian Swedish Finnish Danish Norwegian German
Castanhas Kastan Kaštan Kasztan jadalny Kostanj Kastanj Kastanja Kastanje Kastanje Kastanie

Slovak Hungarian Basque
Gaštan Gesztenye Gaztainondo

The term derives ultimately from the Greek, kastaneia, which was perhaps borrowed from a language of Asia Minor. There was a Kastanaia in Pontus in Asia Minor (now Kestane, Turkey) and a Castana in Thessaly, both towns perhaps named for the tree, though the Greeks thought the tree was named for one of the towns, most likely the one in Pontus. The English word Chestnut derives from the Castanea through the old French form chastaigne. In English it was first chesteine (Middle English) and then chesten. Of course, all these words refer to the tree rather than the nut, so chesten nut meant the nut that came from the chesten (Castanea) tree, but in time chestnut came to be the name of the tree as well.

The French, Spanish, Italian, and English terms became surnames: Chatagnier, Castano, Castagno, Castagna, Chestnut. The French Chatagnier produced numerous surname variations. In the United States, most Chastains, Chasteens, Chastines, Chesteens, DeChastains, and possibly Shasteens descend from Dr. Pierre Chastain, French colonialist to Virginia, while most Chastangs and Chestangs descend from brothers Joseph Chastang and Dr. John Chastang, French Alabama pioneers.

Chastain leads the group as the 2289th most common last name in the USA, followed by Chestnut (#2,677), Chasteen (#7348), Castano (#9358), Chesnut (#11,576), Castagna (#17,838), Shasteen (#20,539), Chesnutt (#22,381), Castine (#27,888), Chestnutt (#34,067), Kastanes (#37,695), Chastine (#38,394), Chastang (#41,131), Chatagnier (#44,268), Chastin (#44,269), Chesteen (47,951), and Chestang (#52,456). Castaing is not listed in the rankings, but there are Castaings in America. All these spellings are included in the pages of this website, and the name Chastain is often used on this site as a generic term to include all French spellings. Chastain Central focuses on French spellings, but Italian and Spanish spellings are treated in the article Castagna and Related Surnames, and English spellings in Chesnut and Related Surnames.

The words for chestnut came to describe hair that was chestnut-colored, so the names arose in different places, perhaps due to people being associated with chestnut trees or having chestnut hair.

Some authorities, such as The Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, trace two names to alternative sources: Casteen to a German word for grain-bin, and Castine to the German name for Christian or to the Jewish name from the German Cherrystone. Related names may be Kasten (7,326), Kastein (51,103), Kasting (56,383), and Kastens (83,109). However, Castine in America is known to have French roots, so there may be three unrelated sources for this name.

The Genus Castanea

As Castanea-related surnames arose in Europe, it was the European or Spanish chestnut that was known, so in a sense we are named for the Spanish chestnut, Castanea sativa. Probably originating in western Asia, the Spanish chestnut grows in southwest Asia, southern Europe, northern Africa, and in Great Britain (can you say Roman Empire?). It can grow to 100 feet tall, a diameter of 10 feet, and can live for more than 400 years, and it has been cultivated for 3000 years. Discovery of the Americas included discovery of a familiar tree. It was the related American chestnut, Castanea dentata. There are also chestnut species in the orient.

The Genus Castanea now includes a number of species including the four major ones: Castanea sativa (Spanish or European Chestnut), Castanea dentata (American Chestnut), Castanea mollissima (Chinese Chestnut), and Castanea crenata (Japanese Chestnut). The genus is part of the family Fagaceae, which also includes beeches and oaks. The Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is not a true chestnut, produces inedible nuts, and is not of the genus Castanea. The Spanish and American chestnut species are tall forest trees, while the oriental species are shorter and bushier. In the early twentieth century, the American and Spanish chestnuts were almost destroyed when they came in contact with oriental species that carried a blight. You may read more about the terrible destruction and current restoration efforts in Chastain Central's The American Chestnut Tree and in Chestnut Tree News.

French ChataignesThe chestnut makes a wonderful large shade tree. The nuts are starchy, rather than oily, and provide potassium and Vitamins B and C. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and can be used as a sugar source. Roasted chestnuts are made into a flour or used as a coffee substitute. The leaves and bark of the Chataignier Tree are used medicinally for bleeding, diarrhea, convulsive coughing, rheumatism, and lower back pain.

Honeys come from different nectars, and the source determines the honey's taste and color. A number of companies produce Castagno Honey made from Castanea nectar. If you read Italian, you may enjoy one manufacturer's website. For other chestnut foods, see the Chestnut Store. Chestnut dishes are becoming more popular, and therefore, so are chestnut recipes.

Proud to be a Castanea

Now that you know a bit about the tree for which Chastains are named, the next time someone asked, "If you were a plant or an animal, which would you be?," you can answer, "The Castanea Tree!"

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