Importance of American chestnut

Grey Tree Frog in American Chestnut Tree

Why is the chestnut so important? (A gray tree frog – Hyla vericolor – nestles in the branch of a young American chestnut)

The American chestnut was once one of the most important trees in our eastern hardwood forests. It ranged from Maine to Georgia, and west to the prairies of Indiana and Illinois. It grew mixed with other species, often making up 25 percent of the hardwood forest. In the virgin forests of the Appalachian Mountains, the ridges were often pure chestnut and mature trees could be 600 years old and average 4 to 5 feet in diameter and 80 to 100 feet tall.

Then blight struck. First discovered in 1904 in New York City, the lethal fungus – an Asian organism to which our native chestnuts had very little resistance – spread quickly. By 1950, except for the shrub-like sprouts the species continually produces (and which also usually become infected), the American chestnut had virtually disappeared from eastern forests.

The Dealers are Crying Chestnuts is the title of an 1886 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer as quoted in Mighty Giants. The autumn crop was scarce that year and street corner sellers complained that “selling is a losing business.” Farmers of the nineteenth century were used to crop failure and famine and the vendors no doubt saw their loss as simply that – ephemeral and not permanently catastrophic. That is, they expected the crop to return the following year and their coffers to once again fill with the cash the crop brought. But in less than a generation they would find a loss so permanent, it is considered one of the greatest ecological to ever occur, and the impact on humans who had relied on Chestnut was enormous.

In 1907 it was reported that over 600 million board feet of chestnut were cut in the United States. The estimated total that year for chestnut retail value (boards, food, tannins) was placed at over twenty-two million dollars. In today’s dollars, the retail value of the lumber alone would exceed three billion dollars. The total food and industrial value is hard to estimate. We know from sources that Chestnut was a source of cash for those who might have grown or bartered for most household needs. Plus chestnut served as food for animal forage with accounts of man competing with his beasts to gather chestnuts before the animals devoured what reached the forest floor. Even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a bushel of chestnut brought upwards of five dollars or more. This was welcome cash for mountain folk from Georgia to Vermont, the American chestnut’s natural range.

A New York Times article from 1892 (before the blight) talks about how the gathering of chestnut in Hamburg, Connecticut (present day Old Lyme) represented perhaps the best opportunity for a family to earn cash.

When the season for Chestnuting opens, all other business is laid aside for the time being. Women go first with baskets and pails, and if there are children at school they are taken out and set at work. Families frequently make $12 to $15 a day during the season, which usually lasts three weeks.

Although unknown at the time, In less than a generation, chestnuting would end in Hamburg Connecticut. Within another generation – chestnuting would end throughout the tree’s native range. A NY Times article from 1908 projects that the Chestnut tree is doomed!

That all the trees in the United States are doomed to destruction by a mysterious disease called chestnut blight or canker is the gloomy prediction of Dr. W.A.Murrill … now he asserts there is nothing to be done against it; that it must run its course like all epidemics. The chestnut is one of the principal sprout tree of the east … a vast loss will be entailed on the eastern forest region should this disease prove as destructive as is at present threatened

And without specifics, foretells the laments of the families from Hamburg, Connecticut that no longer chestnut during the three weeks the trees used to bear fruit.
While too young to have experienced first-hand the devastation of the chestnut blight, I believe working to restore the species has helped make me more aware of what its bounty might have been. Visiting Chestnut orchards in Europe, or even at the CT Agriculture Experiment Station helps one visualize what might be when the tree returns. I hope it also it also better prepares me to understand the significance of threats from other pathogens and pests. On earth day, thinking about the impact of globalization and the shrinking of the globe – at least as far as pathogens are concerned – one can attempt to draw parallels with the Chestnut blight. The Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Long-horned Beetle, and Woolly Adelgid are all pests with potential to alter forest ecology – and to at least some extent impact our culture. So the question begs, what in terms of ecological and cultural impact is the next chestnut blight, and what lessons have we learned from chestnut that inform our ability to deal with the losses and envision the renewal.

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Bill Adamsen

Bill Adamsen

Bill Adamsen is a member of the CT Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) Board of Directors. He served as Chapter President for eight years.

Bill Adamsen

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