Nearly Extinct: The American Chestnut Tree, the Pride of Appalachia

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PHOTO: American Chestnut Nuts with Burrs and Leaves, courtesy Timothy Van Vliet
PHOTO: American Chestnut Nuts with Burrs and Leaves, courtesy Timothy Van Vliet

Many of my earliest memories take place under a massive American Chestnut tree in my grandfather’s West Virginia backyard.  This glorious tree was a source of shade, conversation and at times even great pain, when my young bare feet would accidentally step onto the sharp barbs protecting the fallen fruit.

When I think of my grandfather, memories of his backyard are not far off and when my mind transports me decades back in time to his Appalachian backyard, I am immediately seated under his glorious tree.

As a child, little did I realize the testimony or significance of this great tree — nor did I properly appreciate why my grandfather was so proud of his American chestnut.  As I’ve gotten older, however, and learned the story of this great hardwood, I have come to appreciate this incredible tree even the more.

According to the American Chestnut Foundation, “More than a century ago, nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees were growing in the eastern U.S. They were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees. The wood was rot-resistant, straight-grained, and suitable for furniture, fencing, and building. The nuts fed billions of birds and animals. It was almost a perfect tree…”

Even long before European settlers topped the Blue Ridge and entered into the great Appalachians, American Indians were feasting on chestnuts, relying on the fruits as a valuable source for protein.

In some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains, one-quarter of hardwoods were chestnuts. Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet, up to 100 feet tall and averaging up to 5 ft in diameter. For three centuries, most barns and homes east of the Mississippi River were made from it.

According to the American Chestnut Foundation, “In colonial America, chestnut was a preferred species for log cabins, especially the bottom rot-prone foundation logs. Later posts, poles, flooring, and railroad ties were all made from chestnut lumber.  The edible nut was also a significant contributor to the rural economy. Hogs and cattle were often fattened for market by allowing them to forage in chestnut-dominated forests. Chestnut ripening coincided with the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season, and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree.”

Writing about chestnut trees in the late-1800s, Levi Ward Russell stated, “Young people need not be told where chestnut trees are, it is their delight to find them. Although to them their delicious nuts are the chief attraction, yet it is easy to excite an interest in the general characteristics of the trees. A chestnut tree of good size may be distinguished from most other trees as far away as it can be plainly seen. The branches are so noticeably even at their ends that they appear as though they had been clipped by the gardener’s shears. A woods of chestnut trees viewed so as to see their tops presents a similar aspect.”

Sadly, this once grand staple of the Appalachian forest was nearly wiped out thanks to an import of Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York.

The imported Asian trees contained a blight fungus that soon spread to the American chestnut trees.  Within 40 years, the nearly four billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated; only a few clumps of trees remained in Michigan, Wisconsin, California and the Pacific Northwest.

Due to disease, American chestnut wood almost disappeared from the market for decades, although quantities can still be obtained as reclaimed lumber.

Efforts started in the 1930’s are still ongoing to repopulate the country with these trees.

Today, they only survive as single trees separated from any others (very rare), and as living stumps, or “stools”, with only a few growing enough shoots to produce seeds shortly before dying.

In 2017, the nut’s demand outstrips supply. The United States imported 4,056 metric tons of European in-shell chestnuts worth $10 million in 2007. The U.S. chestnut industry is in its infancy, producing less than 1% of total world production.

Currently efforts are underway to help restore the American chestnut tree to its former glory, however, the road is not an easy one.  Chestnut blight continues to be a problem and all too often the few American chestnut trees that do reach the age of maturity soon die off after only producing a handful of seeds.

Still, work persists in genetically modifying the tree to become more resistant to fungus, as well as educating owners of these American heritage trees of the significance these plants play to the Appalachian ecosystem.

“There’s nothing more important and visionary than planting a tree so that our grandchildren can enjoy its fruit,” states Michael Doochin, Chairperson of the American Chestnut Foundation.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I am the proud owner of an American Chestnut tree! She and I have a love and dislike relationship. I love this majestic tree, until the stickery hulls start to fall to the ground, and fall, and fall, … I “loved” picking up and dumping those four huge wheelbarrows full of prickles from Hell this morning. And I look forward to tomorrow’s loads as well! But we will have chestnuts in the dressing on Thanksgiving and Christmas. That makes me smile. I know that I picked up each and every one of them all by myself! I will watch my squirrels and deer waddle around this winter after they’ve feasted as well.

  2. I sure miss the chestnuts. When I was a kid, we used to get them a lot and I remember using a knife to get that shell open. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, but sure worth the effort.

  3. I loved going to Waverly’s and the boys, (which was the last time so forgive the reference! ) where the Chestnut was discovered! Billy, Andrew, Betony, and I would slip into a backyard a few houses down, to a perfectly shaped tree. Each year the prickly seed pods and chestnuts were scattered on the ground. I couldn’t slip enough in my pockets to try and save to enjoy later. Sometimes it was tedious but I had to remove the fuzzy skin covering the yellow nut with grooves like valleys and mountains before I could eat it. After the fuzz was off and I had to bite and make sure there was no worm already munching before me! That was the last and only Chestnut tree I have ever seen.

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