Perhaps as schoolchildren, we recited the words of Longfellow’s immortal poem: “Under a spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands.” In recent years, the village smithy–or anyone else–would find few such trees to stand under. The mighty American chestnut tree, known scientifically as Castenea dentata, has been laid low by a fungus called Endothia parasitica, or, simply, chestnut blight.
The majestic chestnut once made up one-fourth of all the trees in the forests from Maine to Georgia. Chestnut was once called the “redwood of the east.” Straight and rot-resistant, its timber was used to make telephone poles, railroad ties, furniture, and even musical instruments. The chestnut is credited with sustaining the economy of rural Appalachia in the nation’s formative years, providing food as well as lumber for building barns and fences. Even its bark was used to make tannin for leather.
“The story is that the chestnut supported from cradle to grave,” says Bill Alexander, landscape curator of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. “You were rocked to sleep as a baby in a chestnut cradle and you were buried in a chestnut casket.”
Demand for chestnuts, known for their flavor, grew quickly, and railroad cars carrying large shipments of the nuts would leave the mountains for the city where street vendors roasted them. They were also popular in holiday recipes. We remember the Christmas song with the opening line: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
But beginning in 1904, all this was to come to a slow but certain end. A fungus that caused blight was discovered in a shipment of imported Chinese chestnuts. The blight spread about fifty miles south each year, killing every chestnut in its path. By the 1940s, the blight has invaded all of the eastern forests, killing the trees on which it lived back to the roots, leaving the tree at the point of virtual extinction. In the 1950s, the American Chestnut Foundation recognized that though the tree had been essentially eliminated as a forest tree, the root system was not affected by the blight. Sprouts from old trunks can grow twenty feet high and six inches in diameter before they succumb.
Fortunately, current research being conducted by scientists in conjunction with the American Chestnut Foundation holds hope for a chestnut revival. A number of solutions are now being investigated. One is to attempt to hybridize existing chestnut stocks in much the same way as vegetable and grain varieties are developed–by irradiating the nuts to produce slight genetic mutations. Sprouts grown from them are tested for characteristics that might make them resistant to blight.
Another hybridization program is similar to that used in creating new varieties of fruit trees. Chinese and American trees have been successfully crossbred to produce a hardy blight-resistant tree that is sold commercially. The only drawback has been some undesirable non-chestnut like traits such as slow growth, poor form, and knotty wood.
Still another approach consists of culturing a different type of fungal organism to grow on the hybrid chestnuts. Researchers have discovered that when they did this, the less virulent form of blight dominated the deadly strain genetically and eventually converted it into the new strain.
All of these are signs of hope for the revival of what was once the reigning monarch of the eastern forests.
The famous naturalist A. L. Rowe once described his memories of the tree: “If I were permitted to return to childhood for just one time, I think I would select a bright afternoon in October when the chestnut burst had been asunder. Then with my father, we would go through the orchard to the chestnut trees that stood just beyond. I would see him climb the tree and with a long pole, knock the showers of nuts from the golden burs; and I, a little boy, would gather them from the fallen leaves with a joy that only innocent childhood knows.” If the research continues to be successful and signs of revival continue to be hopeful, the scenes of A. L. Rowe’s youth may return to the American homestead. The sport of chestnutting may return to the American scene.