Saturday, January 12, 2013

The American Chestnut Tree

My neighbors Chinese Chestnut Tree.
Catching the entire Eastern Seaboard by surprise, at the beginning of the 20th Century there was a horrible near extermination of the majestic and environmentally beneficial American Chestnut Tree (Castanea dentata).  Revered as the East Coast California Redwood this tree took up nearly 25% of the Eastern hardwood forest.

Very few of us are left to recall such a horribly sad period in history when a parasite was imported attached to Asian introduced Chestnut trees and subsequently killed nearly every American Chestnut tree it came in contact with.  The fungus was spread by forest insects and animals and was carried by the wind.  It was impossible to stop its rapid path of destruction - no cutting, pruning, or propagation revived this magnificent tree.  It has taken nearly a century to successfully figure out this maddening puzzle. 

Multi-branched Chinese Chestnut Tree.
I'm reading a fascinating book that I checked out from our local library written by the TACF, Mighty Giants, The American Chestnut Anthology.  I recall my mother explaining to me some time ago that our two Chestnut trees at our family home were Chinese because all the American species had been decimated by a horrible blight.  Deep inside I wished and hoped that somehow they were really the rare elusive American Chestnut.  I'm no expert but due to the shape, size and form and nut size, sadly they are not (they are probably (Castanea mollissima).  The American Chestnut was a grand forest tree - a mighty giant.  My Chestnut trees were big but they were multi-branched and planted by my Grandparents after the blight (in their lifetime I'm sure they ate many American Chestnuts and so missed the nuts).  Squirrels were always tucking a few Chinese Chestnut seeds into my pots outside.  It was common for me to have to pluck out Chestnut sprouts - complete with a nut at the end - each Spring. 

Dried leaves & hull of Chinese Chestnut Tree.
American Chestnuts were a favorite food item for people and forest animals, noted to be sweeter than Japanese or Chinese varieties.  There were two diseases that killed stands of American Chestnut trees. Ink Disease killed stands located in warmer climates along the East Coast first and much later blight killed most of the rest that were still alive in the cooler mountainous areas... to a tune of 4 billion trees or 25% of the Eastern Hardwood Forest - DEAD.  One interesting note and a blessing is that blight only attacks growth above the root so there are living American Chestnut trees still to be found and the root stock can be used for recovery.  Some American Chestnut trees sprout and die and sprout and die... which builds in susceptibility to the virus. 

There are ongoing efforts to revive the mighty American Chestnut Tree.  It sounds like such a worthy project and its amazing how for a long time just a few people tried to make this dream a reality until TACF was created in the early 80's.  There is an experimental station run by TACF in Southwest Virginia and in Tennessee at Dollywood there is a large forest stand thanks to Dolly and her Uncle that started it.  Due to the love of this beautiful tree, political figures have been involved, Jimmy Carter and Robert Vessey, and many scientists.  The largest American Chestnut tree is out West in Washington State at 88' tall.

Infamous prickly seed hull - gotta wear gloves and shoes!
The Chestnut tree (of any variety) is not that common and you have to search it out to discover it.  There is only one on my street and it's growing in my neighbors front yard - something I swore I would never do because of the prickly hulls that litter the ground in the Fall but I sure would love a few in the backyard - Chestnuts roasting in the open fire... and as a food for wildlife.  Believe me when I say, you will go out and collect Chestnuts in your flip flops once but not twice!  

I used to grow produce and sell it at farmers markets and my first sale was a basket of our Chinese Chestnuts!  They were plentiful on our 50 year old Chinese Chestnut trees but they were not what my Grandparents enjoyed in their youth.

-Rebecca


7 comments:

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  6. Thank you Cindy, I really enjoyed researching the history of this wonderful tree. I'm glad you enjoyed my writing. Best to you always. Rebecca

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