Blog: The Forgotten American Chestnut

American Chestnut, 1914

A century ago, the most dominant tree in the United States, the American chestnut, towered over the land and ruled the East Coast forests from Georgia to Maine. In a manner of a human lifespan this majestic tree has not only disappeared, but sadly in many cases been forgotten.

Once upon a time, chestnuts grew all over North America and Eurasia, then joined to a supercontinent called Laurasia. Once Laurasia broke up, seven species of chestnuts developed: Chinese, European, Japanese, dwarf Chinese, Chinese chinquapin, American chestnut and Allengheny chinquapin.

All species bear fruits called nuts–high in fiber, protein, vitamin C and carbohydrates; low in calories and saturated fats. All chestnuts have root systems that are able to regenerate new trunks—coppicing is a potent form of resilience against natural disturbances, including landslides and flooding.

The native range of tall American chestnuts once spanned over 220 million acres across the east, west to Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. So noteworthy a tree that 1,094 places have “chestnut” in their names across America.

The American chestnut’s fruit are the sweetest nuts of all species. A single tree could easily grow 6,000 nuts. Those nuts fed bears, elk, squirrels, deer, raccoon, mice, wild turkeys—perhaps as many as 10 million, and supported enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, now extinct.

Native Americans depended upon chestnuts too for both food and powerful medicines.

Southern Appalachians families in the 18th and 19th century also relied heavily upon chestnut crops for food, using it as a resource to barter for all their necessities.

Chestnut wood was even grained, sandy colored and strong. By 1909, 600 million board feet of chestnut was cut annually. And by 1915, two-thirds of the tannic acid produced in America, used in the dyeing industry, came from chestnut wood and bark.

In the summer of 1904 stately chestnuts at the New York Zoological Park began mysteriously to die.

The trees exhibited peppering of sun-colored spots, sunken patches of bark high over-head, handfuls of pale or withered leaves and lots of dying branches.

By the spring of 1905, every chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park was infected.

Dr. William Murrill, a mycologist from Cornell University, discovered the life cycle of the chestnut blight fungus Cryphonectria parasitica. The fungus encircles the limbs or trunk and girdles or cuts-off the food and water supply—within two or three years a mature tree perishes.

The blight came from an infected Japanese chestnut imported in the late 19th century. Both Japanese and Chinese chestnuts were immune to it, yet it was deadly for the American chestnut.

It wasn’t until 1912 that the U.S. had initiated a national quarantine system.

In 1911, Pennsylvania had mounted an all out campaign to eradicate the blight, but it proved futile because tiny spores spread far and wide with even the slightest breeze.

The chestnut blight had advanced deep into North Carolina by 1925, spreading rapidly at 42 miles a year.

By 1943 some four billion American chestnut trees were dead; that is enough trees to cover Yellowstone National Park one thousand eight hundred times over.

Today there are about 300 known resilient mature American chestnut trees as the species teeters on the edge of extinction.

Since the 1920s scientists have been attempting to breed resistance into American chestnuts.

Even today, with stringent quarantine regulations, pathogens continue to infiltrate and harm America—as our beleaguered, infected honeybees also face an uncertain future.

Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, conservation biologist and co-author of “Life, The Wonder of it All.”