Have you ever seen an American chestnut tree? Probably not, but you missed them only by a few decades. At one time, the American chestnut filled our eastern forests and supported a variety of wildlife. The American chestnut also provided vital contributions to American society in food and wood, but a devastating fungus disease called chestnut blight was introduced from Asia at the beginning of twentieth century and within 40 years had killed nearly every mature American chestnut on the continent. The devastation to wildlife and to the American economy is incalculable.
One might ask why the American chestnut is featured on a Chastain website. The scientific name of the American chestnut is Castanea dentata, and it is one of four main species of the genus Castanea worldwide. All of the families of Chastain and related names come directly from the Castanea: Chastain, Chasteen, Chesteen, Chastine, Shasteen, Castaing, Chastang, Chestang, Castana, Castano, Castagna, Castagno, Chesnut, Chesnutt, Chestnutt, and others. See more detail in The Chataignier Tree and the Chastain Surname. Chastains have a real connection to the chestnut tree, so it is reasonable for Chastains and related spellings to have an interest in the American chestnut.
Of the four main Castanea species, the European Castanea sativa and the American Castanea Dentata are tall, hardwood, forest trees, while the oriental Castanea mollissima (Chinese Chestnut) and Castanea crenata (Japanese Chestnut) have developed differently into much shorter, bushier trees, and more closely resemble an apple tree. However, all four are easily crossbred with each other. The genus Castanea also includes chinkapins. Horse chestnuts are not really chestnuts at all. They belong to an entirely different genus Aesculus.
Before the blight, the American chestnut was dominant in the eastern forests, comprising as much as one quarter of all hardwood trees. Livelihoods and life itself depended on the American chestnut, which seemed to be a reliable resource that would last forever. Then came the blight. Chestnut trees of another species, probably Castanea crenata-the Japanese chestnut, were imported and planted in the United States. These oriental trees carried a blight (Cryphonectria parasiticato) to which the foreign plants were tolerant, but against which the American chestnut had no defense. The blight was first identified in 1904 at the New York Botanical Gardens and Bronx Zoo, and it spread quickly through the vast American chestnut forests. The great death began. The blight traveled about 50 miles per year until the entire mature chestnut population from Maine to Florida was dead. By 1950 it was all over. No more American chestnut forests were to be seen; four billion trees were gone. The dead chestnuts were cut for their excellent timber, but no new trees replaced them.
The impact on wildlife and on the American economy was terrible. It was perhaps the worst environmental disaster in the Americas since the Ice Age. Because the underground roots of the American chestnut are not affected by the blight, chestnut shoots continue to appear, but within months or years they succumb to the blight and die. Here and there individual trees survived. There is a surviving tree in Vermont. One of the largest surviving trees is in Adair County, Kentucky. Another of the larger trees is in Amherst County, Virginia. A third is located in Cameron County, Pennsylvania. However, large in this context is relative. These trees do not compare to the majestic chestnuts that used to thrive throughout the range. The Canadian Chestnut Council reports that a few older trees still survive in Ontario, Canada.
Some chestnut trees planted by humans outside the usual chestnut range escaped the original onslaught. They were not blight resistant, but were so far from diseased trees that they were not immediately infected. There are trees in the northwestern United States. Some trees in Michigan that were infected much later seem to be surviving with help from inoculation. The largest stand of surviving American chestnuts in the world, about 2500 trees, is on 60 acres of forestland in La Crosse County near West Salem, Wisconsin, but it is currently under severe attack by the blight. The largest American chestnut in Canada is among a few trees in Nova Scotia.
In an extract from the longer article, New Hope for the American Chestnut, Bruce Carley, describes the great ecological disaster of the early 20th century that destroyed the American chestnut, but he also tells of the remarkable efforts to bring the grand tree back into its own (used by permission of Bruce Carley). The entire article is worth reading.
This tree was truly the emperor of the eastern forests, as its reliably abundant nuts each fall alone supported the large numbers of animals that our forebears beheld - animals including moose, elk, bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, turkeys, and even a few species that recently have become extinct. It also was our most economically important tree, as it produced durable, top-quality wood up to 50 percent faster than oak - wood which was used for practically everything from houses and furniture to railroad ties - as well as a major cash crop for "roasting on an open fire."
Our grandparents annually roasted ample supplies of the sweet nuts, which they ate like pistachios and used as an essential ingredient for traditional stuffing. The four billion American chestnut trees that thrived in their generation gave them quantities of nuts so vast that they probably thought they could never run out. Fully one tree out of four in the old-growth Appalachian forests which they beheld was an American chestnut. Indeed, the Appalachian forests in many localities were entirely chestnut and were composed of examples of monstrous sizes often approaching 130 feet in height and 10 or more feet in diameter. The chestnut's mature form was similar to that of oak, to which it is closely related, but its dimensions were so huge, its growth rate so rapid, and its prevalence so vast, that it was commonly known as the “redwood of the east.”
In July, masses of white flowers spectacularly covered most mature specimens, producing the unique effect of “summer snow,” as it was popularly called, and the wind carried pollen abundantly from these conspicuous male flowers to the female flowers of nearby chestnut trees, flowers which later ripened into sharp, prickly burs that would split open in early autumn to release usually three nuts each. (Chestnut trees are not self-fertile and must cross-pollinate to produce viable seed.)
We obtain our chestnut crops nowadays from supermarkets, where we are forced to settle for the relatively insipid European imports. The few people living today who have tasted the nut of the American species are either senior citizens or highly fortunate, relentless naturalists like this writer, who can affirm from a rare, privileged experience that the nuts are indeed quite tasty. Similarly, while our lumber supply centers provide us with the finest wood of almost every variety we could hope for, the most highly esteemed of all native lumbers has been hopelessly out of stock for half a century - and what a shame, for chestnut wood was superbly tough, water-resistant, as rot-resistant as redwood, and much easier to grow than oak.
The planting of a few exotic chestnut trees (probably the Japanese chestnut, C. crenata) in or near New York City shortly before 1904 quickly proved to have been one of the most tragic mistakes of the century. In those days of environmental ignorance, it did not occur to most people to consider the potential hazards that exotic imports and their parasites can pose to native wildlife,
The blight spread with amazing swiftness throughout the American chestnut's extensive native range in eastern North America and quickly destroyed over 99.99 percent of the chestnut population - almost all of four billion trees - annihilating at least six specialized insect species, decimating wild turkey populations, and depriving all of us of a priceless resource. The effect on countless life forms of this sudden loss of their ecological backbone was not slight, as no other tree in the area yielded dependable and abundant crops of nuts every year. Many animal populations were reduced substantially as they were forced to adjust their diets to include more acorns and other seeds.
The world's only other species of true chestnut with a timber-type growth form, the European chestnut (C. sativa), suffered the same fate to a lesser degree after the blight was introduced similarly into Europe in the 1930's.
The eventual return to the landscape of mature, healthy American chestnut trees is now a promising prospect, thanks to the long-term efforts of a nonprofit organization, The American Chestnut Foundation. This organization is successfully breeding nearly pure strains of American chestnut with full levels of blight-resistance derived from the genes of Asian chestnut species. Although crops will not be abundant in the first few years, TACF expects to begin distributing reliably blight-resistant seeds from these strains to its members in approximately 2007, making it realistically possible at last for us to begin restoring this irreplaceable ecological keystone to its proper place in our parks, yards, forests, stuffing recipes, and lumber selections.
Survivors of the blight continue to be discovered in many states, which further strengthens the restoration program.
Leading the valiant effort to restore the American chestnut is The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), established in 1983 by a group of prominent scientist with the goal of bringing the American chestnut back to its old habitats by breeding it for resistance to the blight. An earlier effort by the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station was made soon after the blight was discovered, but it was unsuccessful. However, results from that effort combined with new developments in genetics and plant pathology is promising in bringing the American chestnut back to its proper place.
Two of the founding scientists of TACF were Philip Rutter and Dr. Charles Burnham, who developed the backcross breeding program. In 1989 TACF established the Wagner Research Farm in Meadowview, Virginia to execute their program. The backcross breeding program involves crossing resistant Chinese chestnuts with American chestnuts to produce trees that were 50% each. The most resistant of these were crossed with 100% American chestnuts to produce trees that were 75% American chestnut; this was repeated until now, after some 25 years, there are resistant trees that are 94% American chestnut. The goal is to produce American chestnuts with no Chinese chestnut characteristics except blight resistance.
Because the American chestnut covered a vast area with different environments, varieties of blight-resistant American chestnuts must be developed for each region. Today, crossbreeding programs are carried out by TACT chapters in Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. At the University of Missouri at Columbia's Center for Agroforestry, researchers are experimenting with more than 50 varieties of chestnuts, and The American Chestnut Foundation now partners with 17 state chapters, the U.S. Forestry Service, and about 30 universities to restore the American chestnut.
Rex Mann, a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and founder of the Kentucky chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation said, "Potentially, this is the greatest restoration effort that has ever been undertaken." The U.S. Forest Service benefits beyond the successful restoration of the American chestnut. The method developed to save the tree could serve as a prototype for future restoration efforts should another disease sweep through American forests affecting a different species such as The American butternut, the American beech, the white walnut, the dogwood, or the eastern hemlock, all of which are facing similar threats.
The American Chestnut Foundation is a nonprofit 501-c-3 organization with more than 5,500 members nationwide and chapters in 17 states including a provisional chapter in Vermont/New Hampshire. It is headquartered in Bennington, Vermont and has research facilities in Meadowview, Virginia and a regional office in Asheville, North Carolina.
University of Florida researchers have been successful in growing a hybrid chestnut resistant to the blight. It is called the Dunstan chestnut, initially developed by breeder Robert Dunstan in the 1950s by crossing a single blight-resistant chestnut from Ohio with a Chinese variety. Dunstan's grandson, R. D. Wallace, now grows 100 acres of blight-free chestnuts on his Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Alachua, Florida. Many of them are over 40 feet tall, and they bear heavily each year. They have a much higher percentage of Chinese chestnut than TACF trees and show a combination of American and Chinese traits. Wallace reports that the new Dunstan trees produce sweet, flavorful nuts superior in taste and size to both foreign breeds and even their original American cousins.
Crossbreeding with other Castanea species is one approach to restoring the American chestnut. The American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation follows a different strategy. They graft scions of surviving American chestnuts onto old rootstocks to produce trees that are 100% American chestnut. They never crossbreed other Castanea species into the American chestnut. They call their method "All-American intercrossing". You can read a brief three-page history in pictures beginning with the grandparent trees Gault and Floyd. Each year, the ACCF provides to growers 100% American chestnut seedlings and seed nuts from blight resistant trees. Blight resistance is inherited only by perhaps 10% of the seedlings, but there are startling success stories like the chestnut named Nathan Pease. Another ACCF emphasis is on the discovery, cataloging, and preservation of old American chestnut rootstocks, many of which are dying out due to unfavorable local environmental changes.
The ACCF also employs a third tool in saving the American chestnut. When blight cankers appear in their new trees, the cankers are inoculated with a mixture of European and American hypovirulent strains of the blight fungus. Where the inoculation is successful, cankers grow slowly and are superficial, growing on the bark instead of into the living part of the tree. Hypovirulent strains of blight were discovered when the blight was introduced to Europe and began attacking the European chestnut Castanea sativa. It was found that some trees were infected by strains of blight that carried a virus. The virus weakened the blight so that cankers grew more slowly and also swelled outward instead of penetrating inward to kill the tree. These hypovirulent strains of blight spread naturally in Europe, so that the European chestnut did not experience the near-total destruction seen in the American chestnut. Similar inoculations are used by TACF as well on surviving groups of American chestnut trees such as those in Michigan and in Wisconsin that have recently come under blight attack.
When President George W. Bush planted a 16 foot American chestnut on the Whitehouse grounds in 2005, he said, "One day the American chestnut...will be coming back. And this is our little part to help it come back." He was not the first president to take note of the American chestnut. Former President Jimmy Carter has been a member of The American Chestnut Foundation since 1992, and is an honorary board member. President Carter remarked, “I consider the breeding and restoration of blight-resistant chestnut trees in the United States to be one of the most interesting and important scientific projects of our time. I hope that everyone will join Rosalynn and me in supporting this effort, and in encouraging our friends to participate actively.” On September 21, 2005 President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter dedicated an American chestnut tree demonstration site at the Carter Center.
Interest in the progress of American chestnut restoration continues. Newspapers and other news sources such as National Geographic run articles regularly. A collection of representative articles is found at Chastain Central's Chestnut Tree News. Charley Chestnut is an entertaining introduction to the American chestnut and its history, and it is suitable for both children and adults. There are many lists of chestnut links, one of the most extensive and best organized being J. Hill Craddock's Chestnut Links.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire... For generations, American chestnuts were a major food source for many Americans, but chestnuts eaten in America today come mostly from Europe, though there is a growing domestic production of Chinese chestnuts. Those who know say that the taste and experience do not compare to the American chestnut.
Should you wish to experiment with chestnut delicacies, here are some recipes and resources to get you started:
Chestnut Recipes From Chestnutsonline
More Chestnut Recipes From Chestnutleaf
More Chestnut Recipes From Girolami Farms
More Chestnut Recipes From Cooks.com
More Chestnut Recipes From Delmarvelous Chestnuts
More Chestnut Recipes From About.com
Tuscan Chestnut Recipes From Chestnutsonline
Chestnut Soup From Boston.com
Wolfgang Puck's Braised Chestnuts From About.com
Instructions for Roasting Chestnuts From Chestnutsonline
Chestnut Products From Chestnutsonline
Gourmet Chestnut Foods From Gourmet Foods
Castagno Honey From Il Forteto
The American Chestnut Foundation
The American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation
The Canadian Chestnut Council
1941 Chestnut Blight Filmstrip
J. Hill Craddock's Chestnut Links
AGMRC Chestnut Links