The Fall of the American Chestnut
One fall day several years ago, my brother Ronnie was cruising one of the woodlots on our farm looking for trees to turn into firewood. His attention became focused on a corner of the woods that was a stone’s throw from a field, yet, for whatever reason, was seldom frequented by our family.
As he walked along through the shadows of the hemlocks and hardwoods, Ronnie suddenly noticed that the decomposing leaf litter under his feet was now bestrewn with burs—the large prickly seedcases indicative of only one tree. Ronnie had just discovered an American chestnut—a native tree of legendary proportions thought to be nonexistent on our farm at that time. Later that day, when
Ronnie related his discovery of the tree to Dad, Dad was—for lack of a better word—dumbfounded. To put it in perspective, Dad had resided on this farm since 1937, and he had never seen a living chestnut tree nor the burs they produce.
Other than the facts gathered from what we read, most of us have no concept of how economically valuable the American chestnut once was, nor can we grasp the tremendous loss suffered by both humans and wildlife when it fell victim to the Asian bark fungus—chestnut blight—over 100 years ago. First noticed in 1904, the fungus attained its foothold in America when it supposedly rode in on exotic blight-resistant chestnuts imported to the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City.
Within a few decades, the woodlots and forests dominated by the species were a graveyard of chestnut remains. I have the book Trees by Julia Ellen Rogers, published in 1928, whose words illuminate the vengeance with which the blight spread: “What a disaster then is the newly arisen bark disease that has already killed every chestnut tree throughout large areas of the Eastern states. Scientists have thus far struggled with it in vain and it is probable that all chestnuts east of the Rockies are doomed.”
Documented as the largest ecological disaster in American history, the American chestnut was, in its heyday, the ruler of the eastern forests. Ranging from Maine to Mississippi and from the Atlantic coast to the Ohio valley, its prolific nature was owed to its rapid growth and its sizeable annual seed crop compared to other species. Estimates claimed that one out of every four hardwood trees was a chestnut.
A third significant characteristic played a huge part in its ability to yield an annual crop without fail: the pollination of its flowers occurred in June, a month essentially immune to a damaging frost.
Despite its disappearance across the landscape, an unquestionable quality that saved it from extinction is its ability to generate stump sprouts from its root system, which is unharmed by the blight. But because of the widely distributed northern red oak, which accompanied the chestnut over much of its range and plays host to the fungus, the airborne spores eventually attack the developing sprouts, choking them of nutrients within the trunk’s cambium layer until they too wither and die.
The traits that bestow the American chestnut with an edge over its competition didn’t stop in the forest. A harvested specimen rendered into beams or boards had valuable and multiple uses as a commercial product. Inside the home, its straight, beautifully grained wood was commonly used for furniture and flooring, while the rich tannins it possessed made it extremely durable for outside projects from fences to telephone poles to shingles.
The lyrics that popularized “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) paid tribute to the abundant, sweet, carbohydrate-rich nuts for which the American chestnut tree was also cherished. The prized nuts plumped livestock, sustained wildlife populations through rough winters, and were a financial resource for many households when sold on the streets for human consumption.
Because of the chestnut’s tremendous societal and ecological importance, one can only imagine how many professionals in the horticulture and forestry fields across the country have been—and still are—committed to defeating the blight and restoring the American chestnut. Today, there are organizations that are determined to complete that mission by either traditional propagation or by implementing biotechnology.
The most ambitious is The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). Created in 1983, TACF now has 6000-plus members and volunteers who are deeply involved with efforts to restore the species to its former niche in the forest ecosystem. State chapters within the foundation are the backbone of TACF, and memberships are greatly needed for the foundation to further its goals. There is so much to tell about the American chestnut, and you won’t find a better resource than TACF’s Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation, published six times a year. Consider joining in on their historic and well- focused progress by becoming a member or visiting them at www.acf.org. Thanks to organizations like TACF, the spirit of connecting with one of the greatest trees of all time lives on.
Strange as it may seem, it’s still possible to purchase true native American chestnut seedlings from certain nurseries around the country. Obviously you don’t have to be reminded that they are not blight resistant, so I won’t go there.
If you’re wondering what happened to the tree my brother found, sadly that fifty-foot-tall specimen measuring twelve inches at DBH (diameter at breast height) had no resistance to the lethal fungus either. Within a few years after Ronnie brought home the news, its stature revealed the visual signs of the blight to which its relatives had previously succumbed.
I remember standing beside the tree looking up one last time at its stark outline, remembering the days when it appeared full of vigor, while at the same time contemplating the helplessness of such a widespread, dominating plant. With silent emotions, I yanked the starter of the chainsaw and sent the razor-sharp cutters through its stem with a feeling of remorse. Standing back, I watched it tumble to the woodland floor, landing in a coffin of its long lost leaves, and the prickly burs that once served as an announcement of its identity.