Chestnut: The Bread Tree Part 2 of 4:

The Epic Saga of the American Chestnut

by Akiva Silver

    The American chestnut may well be the greatest and most useful forest tree to ever grow on this earth. It’s decline is considered by many ecologists to be the single greatest ecological disaster to strike the U.S. since European contact.

    It is hard for us to understand what was lost because we did not witness it. Here, in upstate NY, sugar maple is a dominant tree, both in the landscape and culturally. Every spring, people hang buckets on trees, boil sap, have festivals, and pancake breakfasts. In the fall, the maples turn our hillsides brilliant oranges and reds. The lumber is highly valued and widely used. Every kid around here knows something about sugar maples. 

    If suddenly that entire species, or even the entire genus was wiped out by a disease, it would be devastating. People would mourn the loss, and tell stories about it for the rest of their lives. They would tell the next generation what maple syrup tasted like, or what the leaves looked in the fall. 

    Would the next generation continue to tell this story?, even if they had never seen a live maple tree. And what about the generation after that. Eventually the story would become obscure. People and the land would go on without the presence of maples and scarcely notice it. Well that is what has happened to the American chestnut.

    Castanea dentata dominated the Eastern U.S., making up roughly 1/4 of the trees in its range. This is a huge percentage, considering the diversity found in the eastern deciduous forests. Its trunks were massive, often 10 feet or more in diameter, with canopies reaching 130 feet in the air. These arrow straight, towering trunks were made of high quality, rot resistant timber. The wood was used for barn beams, framing houses, furniture, telegraph poles, fence posts, paper pulp, caskets, and cradles. There is no wood so versatile as American chestnut. It has the durability of black locust, the straight grain and splittability of ash, it’s as stable and easy to work as pine, and very fast growing.

    The wood value alone would have made the American chestnut a highly valuable tree, adding the dependable crops of nuts make this tree stand alone in its excellence. Virtually all wild nut trees have variable crops, producing a huge mast one year, followed by almost nothing the next. There is almost never two good acorn years in a row, hickories will produce heavy mast every 2,3, or even 4 years, and beeches are even worse, sometimes waiting 7 years between crops. The chestnut stands alone in its annual production of nuts. Unlike most trees which flower in the early spring, chestnuts flower in late June or early July, thereby missing any spring frosts. The dependable mast that American chestnut provided, allowed wild animal populations to flourish. Deer, wild turkey, bears, passenger pigeons, racoons, squirrels, are just a few of the species that thrived under the canopy of these magnanimous trees.

    People also ate wild American chestnuts. They were gathered in great quantities throughout the Appalachian mountains, and roasted and sold on the streets of towns like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

    The American chestnut was a keystone species in the ecology of the Appalachians. It was culturally fixed in the minds of Americans, and used widely. Tanneries cranked out leather that was processed with the tannins of chestnut bark, paper mills pulped the wood, railroad companies laid truck with timbers, people built barns and houses, fences, and chairs. They ate the nuts raw and roasted every fall. And then it all crashed.

    In 1904 chestnut blight, cryphonectria parasitica was discovered in the Brooklyn botanical gardens. From there it spread like a wildfire, consuming trees, and turning forests of green into silvery gray ghost woods. Within just 25 years, an estimated 4 billion trees died. An entire ecology, an entire culture, was wiped out. While the trees were dying, the U.S. Forest service, advised people to have all their chestnuts logged. Believing there was no hope, they told folks to get some lumber out of it while they still could. We will never know how many resistant trees were killed in this short sighted practice.

     Cryphonectria parasitica is a fungus whose spores spread by wind. It’s origins lie in Asia, where trees there have co-evolved. When Japanese chestnut seedlings were brought over to the U.S. for people’s gardens, no one noticed that these seemingly healthy trees carried the blight with them. The American chestnut had never encountered this fungus and so had almost zero resistance. People scrambled to save the chestnut tree in vain, employing all sorts of strange strategies over the next several decades before giving up for the most part.

    There were some really wonderful early attempts, notably the work of Arthur Graves. He planted several thousand seeds of anything he could get his hands on, including every species of chestnut from around the world. Many of his trees are still alive and maintained to this day at the Connecticut agricultural experiment station. Graves was never able to find the winning combination of a true timber type tree and full blight resistance. Though he found many trees that came close.

    As the years wore on, and generations passed, interest in the chestnut grew less and less. The American chestnut became a legend, with little practical hope. That is, until two visionary men in the 1970’s, Dr. Charles Burnham and Phil Rutter came up with a plan. It was simple enough, cross American trees with resistant Chinese trees. The resultant seedlings would then be backcrossed with American trees again and again until they had a tree that would be 15/16th American genetics and blight resistance. Dr. Burnham knew he would never live to see the full breeding program to its completion, but he started it nevertheless as a selfless act. This was the beginning of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). 

    TACF would go on to plant thousands and thousands of seeds from multiple lines of genetics. For every tree they grow, hundreds are cut down in this rigorous and highly organized breeding program. Today, TACF has trees that are 15/16th American, that display both timber form and excellent blight resistance. These trees are being planted experimentally in parks, private homes, at institutions, and in reforestation efforts.

    Many folks, including myself, continue to plant and grow 100% pure American trees as well as hybrids. The American trees are nice because the seed is affordable and the trees grow quick. They typically live for 15 years before succumbing to blight. In which time they produce small crops of nuts and excellent pole wood. Since the blight can not kill the root system, the trees sprout back after the blight knocks them down. They can be kept going indefinitely in a coppice system. Growing American chestnuts from seed also expands the genetics of this magnificent species.

    The story of the American chestnut is far from over. Today we can grow resistant hybrids or pure American trees. We can bring this species back into our parks, homes, and wild lands. There really is no reason not to. Millions and millions of people live in the range of the American chestnut. If just 1% of them chose to plant a few trees, we’d have a lot of chestnut trees around.

    If you’d like to know more about how to grow chestnut trees, check out our next article, How to Grow Chestnuts.