The American chestnut might have been the greatest tree to ever live on this earth. It lived up and down the Appalachian range and throughout New York State (excluding the Adirondacks). The chestnuts of the old days grew to over 150 feet tall; they were called the “redwoods of the east.” Great pillars of life, these trees were highly valued for their wood and enormous crops of chestnuts.
Chestnut wood is rot resistant, light, and easy to work. It was used for everything from building barns and houses to fence posts and furniture. The nuts were another story. Not only did they benefit humans, entire populations of animals came to rely on the dependable annual crops. It was said that in an old grove of American chestnuts the forest floor would be ‘knee deep in nuts’ every fall. I did not believe this until I saw a photograph of two loggers standing in front of one of these giant trees. It is hard to believe that they were not redwoods or sequoias.
In old time Appalachia selling chestnuts was a guaranteed income bonus every autumn. The streets of New York City were busy roasting and selling the nuts. Everything changed suddenly- in the early 1900s the trees started dying. People watched in horror and astonishment as four billion trees died in a 20 year span. A disease called chestnut blight accidentally introduced from China spread like a fire that could not be put out. Lumbermen salvage logged every chestnut tree they could, ignoring the possible presence of disease resistant trees.
No one gathered nuts for roasting. Countless turkeys, deer, bears, raccoons, squirrels, crows, etc. were devastated. Huge white tree skeletons stood from Maine to Georgia. Chestnut had been the dominant tree of Appalachia, in the heart of its range, comprising 70% of the forest. The loss of the American chestnut tree is considered by many biologists to be the biggest ecological catastrophe in human history.
Many people gathered any seeds they could find and began the great breeding project that continues today. Disease resistant trees became the holy grail of American chestnut growers. Some cross-bred American and Chinese chestnuts to create this tree, while others focused on pure American species. People have been trying everything imaginable to save this tree, including radiating nuts and genetic engineering. To this day a chestnut tree that is immune to the blight and is able to reach the forest canopy is still being sought after. Growing American chestnuts takes place at research stations, in our local wild forests, and in backyards.
I recently planted 18 American hybrid chestnuts on my land in Spencer and 25 with a group of kids at 4-H acres with Primitive Pursuits. The money to buy the trees came from donations acquired through the monthly tree walks I lead and from Primitive Pursuits families. The next walk is on May 9th at 2 pm at Lindsay Parsons Biodiversity Preserve in West Danby. You can come for free or make a $5 donation toward American chestnut restoration. The walks cover tree identification, natural history, edible plants, and survival uses of trees and plants.
Akiva Silver can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org