Our Once Bountiful American Chestnut Tree
By: S. Wendt
Once abundant, the bountiful American chestnut tree grew across the eastern U.S. for centuries until a fungus from Japan nearly wiped out almost every tree standing. Before 1900, the American chestnut thrived from the coasts of Maine to Georgia, west to Alabama and up to the Illinois plains. It grew to 100 feet tall and 10 or more feet in diameter! This wonderful tree once dominated forests in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia due to its rapid growth and huge annual seed crop. But as with the passenger pigeon and the bison, this once dominant specie is for all practical purposes no more, due to humans.
Our chestnut was a marvelous, treasured tree. Its straight grain, vigor, and very high rot resistance made the wood unsurpassed for splitting and building most of the early American barns, houses, telephone poles, fencing, piers, caskets and more. Lighter than oak but just as strong, it was a primary source of tannin used to treat/cure leather. Even today, its insect and weather resistance and attractive grain make aged chestnut wood a prime choice in refashioning taverns and restaurants.
The profuse production of nutritional nuts from age eight provided food for native and colonial peoples, livestock, and wildlife. Native Americans used chestnut meal with corn to make breads, the leaves to alleviate heart troubles, and sprouts to treat sores. The tasty nuts were an important, easy cash crop taken by the wagonload for rail shipment to big city street corners for roasting and holiday turkey stuffing. Settlers relied on mature chestnut lots to fatten pigs which absolutely brought the highest market prices anywhere.
Our chestnut was the most important U.S. wildlife plant known. Nuts four inches deep on the forest floor were common because the tree’s flowers developed after the killing spring frost passed. Virginia's bears, deer, turkeys, and most other forest mammals and birds, including passenger pigeons relied on the profuse nut crop. At that time, bears were more plentiful due to the hollow shelters these big trees created when they died and uniquely rotted from the inside out. I recall as a boy walking through a ghost forest of 7 foot diameter chestnuts with 3-ft wide hollows running 50 feet up the trunks. Even then, I could sense how powerful a presence these trees created.
This finest chestnut tree was also a real beauty, a tree of choice at Monticello, many a Du Pont estate, and the famous New York Bronx Zoo where ironically the killing fungus blight was first noticed in 1904.
It is widely speculated that the blight came from blight-resistant Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees imported into the Bronx Zoo. The fungus was spread mostly by wind-borne spores with some tree-proximate-to-tree infection caused by rain-splash action. Known as cryphonectria parasitica; the blight enters the chestnut tree through cracks in the bark which usually appear when a tree is a few years old. Once under the bark, the fungus then "eats" away the tree’s vascular cambium and phloem leaving a girdling, sunken canker.
This canker prevents the tree from transporting the food it makes in its leaves through photosynthesis. Without this food, the tree dies within a decade. It spread so quickly it killed almost the entire range of 3.5 billion chestnut trees across 200 million acres by 1950. Although the root systems are not affected and often sprout to form new chestnut trees, the fungus always kills them within a few years.
Several groups are feverishly work to bring our iconic tree back, breeding blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts into American chestnuts to create a blight-resistant strain that is 15/16ths American hybrids like the one planted at the White House in 2005. There’s also lots of promising genetic research to confer resistance which, let’s hope, brings back the most bountiful tree of Virginia.
This story can be read in full along with other history stories in the ENDEAVOR News Magazine at www.annandalechamber.com/theendeavor.rhtml
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