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America's Vanished Treasures: The American Chestnut Tree

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American Chestnut Tree in History

The fate of an American landmark is one of the saddest stories in recent history. The American Chestnut tree was an integral part of the forest landscape when settlers first arrived here in the late 1600's. The tree was treasured by early Americans for it's sweet chestnuts, which could also be sold or bartered for items the farm families needed. The hardwood from the chestnut trees were used to build everything from benches, and cradles, to pianos. Many barns and houses were built with it in the early days of America.

The chestnut was a canopy tree which soared up to 80-100 feet off the ground. The tallest trees could reach 10 stories high. The bark would be a brown-red color, but would eventually turn dark gray. Chestnut brown was described as a particular hair color. Many folks considered it the perfect tree because of it's many uses.

There were certainly plenty of trees to go around. The American Chestnut made up about twenty five percent of eastern forests in the U.S. It's estimated that at one time there were billions of American Chestnut trees dominating the old growth forest. Forest dwelling animals depended on the chestnut tree for sustenance as well. The now extinct passenger pigeon was one of many creatures who depended on the chestnuts for fall feeding before winter came.

The American Chestnut supplied a bounty for everyone as the nuts were plentiful, and the lumber was used heavily in industry as well. And even when the tree was cut down for lumber, it would often resprout, and quickly grow. However an unexpected virus would virtually wipe out the entire species in the proverbial blink of an eye.


The Chestnut Blight

In the early 1900s, biologists realized that the trees were dying off enmasse. The blight was first noticed in 1904, at the New York Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo). Withing two years almost all the Chestnut trees in the Bronx were infected and dying. Scientists finally pinpointed the cause of the blight being the introduction of Asian Chestnut trees to the park. The Chinese trees were resistant to the virus. But the airborne virus quickly jumped over to the American Chestnut trees and created havoc. Infected trees were burned, or cut down to stop the spread of the pathogen. But efforts to stop the blight were unsuccessful. It swept up and down the east coast attacking billions of trees.

Within a human lifespan, the American Chestnut tree was virtually wiped off the map by the virus. By 1950, the American Chestnut tree was virtually extinct. Only a handful here and there along the eastern U.S. managed to hang on. There are literally only a few dozen old growth chestnut trees left in the United States. Oddly enough one stand of timber is in Oregon, having been planted there long ago. The blight has never taken hold there. Elsewhere new trees would sprout, grow a few feet, and then die from the blight. Naturalists and scientists were stymied in every effort to resist the virus, and reclaim the dying trees. However today's scientists have more tools at their disposal, and new hope has grown that the American Chestnut can be brought back from near extinction.

Ghostly American Chestnut Trees after the blight

Ghostly American Chestnut Trees after the blight

Reintroduction of the American Chestnut

In recent years, scientists have been trying a promising technique called backcrossing to bring the American Chestnut tree back from the brink of extinction. By crossing trees from both the American Chestnut as well as the Chinese variety, and eventually getting rid of the traits of the Chinese Chestnut except for the resistance to the blight, the researchers believe that eventually they can bring back the American Chestnut to U.S. Forests as a much stronger, blight resistant survivor.

Dr. Charles D. Burnham, a geneticist from the University of Minnesota, was one of the founders of the American Chestnut Foundation in 1983. It was Dr. Burnham that came up with the idea that using methods like backcrossing could potentially create stronger American Chestnut trees that could survive the chestnut blight. The Foundation has over the years, planted over 22,000 trees. One of the more interesting ideas has been to plant the trees on top of old strip mines which have been cleared of any vegetation. A perfect place to put chestnut trees to start the regrowth process. Many of the trees planted have died, but thousands of others have survived, and kept the virus at bay.

It gives many of us hope that American Chestnut trees can once again be a part of the American forests. They may never number in the billions again, or reach 30 plus inches in diameter. But they were an integral part of our landscape, and perhaps in the near future, can be again.perhaps with the reemergance of the American Chestnut trees, there will once again be “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” come Christmas time.


The Greatest Forest Loss in History

Resources

Freinkel, S. (2009)- American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree: University of California Press

Horton, Tom. “Revival of the American Chestnut” Best of American Forests https://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/revival-of-the-american-chestnut/

Haspel, Tamar. "Unearthed: Thanks to Science we may see the rebirth of the American chestnut" https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/unearthed-thanks-to-science-we-may-see-the-rebirth-of-the-american-chestnut/2014/11/19/91554356-6b83-11e4-a31c-77759fc1eacc_story.html?utm_term=.37d77325bdb3

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_chestnut