Saving American Chestnut Trees

American chestnut trees might avoid extinction thanks to one man's single-handed, whole-hearted effort to preserve them.

| September/October 1981

Edgar Huffman has spent more than a third of his seven decades pursuing an interest in American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata). Before the "blight" all but wiped it from existence back in the 20's and 30's (some of the felled silvery trunks and stumps can still be seen in the woods), this species was the dominant tree in Appalachian forests. It was also the main variety to be found around the Huffman home in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

In his younger days Edgar would often sneak a summer afternoon nap under a chestnut tree in the grove on his father's farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and recollects gathering bushels of roasting nuts from the shade-producers every autumn.

At that time, tanneries in the valley would buy literally tons of bark from owners of chestnut trees, because such material was the best source of tannin that was available then. Farmers and craftsfolk used chestnut wood, too—for rail fences, siding, tool handles, fine furniture, and hundreds of other items—since the timber was rot-resistant, knot-free, exceedingly strong, and faster-growing than any equivalent wood. And, naturally, the chestnut was a major source of heat in the early part of the century, not only because of its abundance and rapid growth, but also because the logs—when burned as fuel—produced little smoke and had a BTU-per-pound rating comparable to that of black oak.

The nuts were also valuable, of course. For one thing, they provided superior forage for pigs. It used to be common knowledge that one tree could fatten three hogs per year. An old Appalachian tale recounts how it took three people to gather chestnuts for human consumption: one to shake the tree, one to distract the porkers with corn, and one to gather the nuts in a hurry before the hogs wised up!

Furthermore, the trees' leaves made excellent bedding for livestock, because their high tannin content repelled insects. And when the animals' stalls were cleaned out, the combined leaves and manure made good compost for the garden (particularly in areas with alkaline soil, since the foliage is rather acidic ).

But for the Blight ...

When one considers the versatility of the American chestnut, then, it should come as no surprise that the blight which swept the nation in the 1920's and 30's caused great economic losses. The fungus eats through the tree's bark and kills it at ground level. Chestnut roots generally survive, however, and will often produce new shoots. But they, too, nearly always succumb to the disease.

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