Living History – the American Chestnut
From the rugged hill country of Maine to the piney clay forests climbing the southernmost slopes of the Appalachians in Georgia, the first European settlers found, as the native Americans before them had, an upland world dominated by over 10,000,000,000 forest lords – the American Chestnut. These giants dominated the easter forest, not only by virtue of their size and number, but also by their prolific nut-bearing, a rich source of nutrition for the fauna of the primeval woodlands.
For generations of Americans, both native and immigrant, these trees were a go-to source of food, as the nuts fed both man and beast, the latter including both domestic and game animals, while the lumber was peerless for its’ strength, beauty, durability and variety of use. Reclaimed chestnut is still in demand, a human lifetime after the blight brought about the end of commercial chestnut logging. Chestnut bark, rich in tannin, was used by pioneer and native American alike in tanning leather.The tree entered American folklore, from Longfellow’s ‘The Village Blacksmith‘ to the Yuletide classic ‘The Christmas Song‘
The Chestnut Blight came to America in 1904; by 1950, as many as 10,000,000,000 chestnut trees were lost, though many stumps, supplied with nutrients from root systems designed to feed a 100′ tree for 500 years, continued to re-sprout from time to time, only to have the new green-growth fall victim to the same plague that felled the trees initially. The American Chestnut’s absence impoverished the communities – both human and forest – that it left behind.
Cross-breeding with blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut trees holds out hope for the eventual arrival of a near-lookalike hybrid that will repopulate the Eastern forests once the province of this magnificent tree. In the meantime, seedlings can be planted and nurtured in isolation, in the hope that the blight passes them by, or in that their parent may have survived by having developed a level of resistance that they also passed to their offspring.
The picture below is of a two-year-old seedling recently acquired by the author.