The American Chestnut

My father grew up outside New Paltz in the 1920s and 30s. In those days, trees were an economic asset and knowing your trees was essential to a family living off the land. Tulip trees were cut to take to the basket factory in Highland. Locust was cut for posts. Hardwoods for furniture.

Walking in the woods with my father was an educational odyssey. But, when we would come upon the rare sprouting stump of a long-dead American chestnut tree he would stop and reverently lament the loss of those productive giants.

Chestnut trees had once shaded most old city streets, provided strong, straight-grained lumber for homes and barns, given a huge and important yearly crop of nourishing nuts, and were a beacon of majestic beauty in the landscape. Huge and wild cornucopias, done in by a tiny fungus, and in a matter of less than forty years.

Last May, Discover Magazine ran an article on that monumental loss of the American chestnut tree in the early 1900s. Four billion (yes, billion) American chestnut trees succumbed to the fungus that killed off the mature trees of the northeastern United States, leaving only root systems. The roots continue to throw up shoots only to lose out to the Asian fungus as the trees gain some size. Now, even those root systems are disappearing as time takes its toll.

The lethal fungus was first noted in New York City in 1904. It quickly spread across much of the North American range of the tree. By the 1930s most chestnuts were dead, with scattered populations surviving in some western states where the blight was absent. Hybreds between the fungus-resistant Chinese and American chestnut are being developed.

Locally, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is often confused with the introduced Horsechestnut tree which is part of the buckeye family (Aesculus hippocastanum). On the north-west corner of Main and Chestnut Streets in New Paltz stands a Horsechestnut tree (they have five to seven spatulate leaves that look like fingers radiating from a single stem). Horsechestnuts are not affected by the blight, nor unfortunately do they grow 100′ tall and five feet in diameter with a canopy unrivaled in inspiring breadth… “Under the spreading Chestnut tree the village smithy stands…” was definitely an American chestnut.

Another Horsechestnut grows in front of the Vandenberg Learning Center which in an earlier time was the Campus School in New Paltz. Many of us lucky enough to have gone to elementary school there recall that tree dropping the hazardously spiked seed pods. American chestnuts also have a hostile seed coat, adding to the confusion about the two trees.

Ron HegemanIn early November I was walking on a road in Highland when I noticed a bur (seed casing). It was the first time I had ever seen a nut casing like this, but was sure it was an American chestnut bur. I stopped at the nearest house and showed the bur to the owner, Ron Hegeman.

The tree, it turned out, was in Ron’s back yard. He had planted it from nuts found while deer hunting about seven years ago. The nuts germinated in a flower pot and he planted the seedlings the following spring. A week or so earlier Ron had raked up all the nuts and prickly burs from his tree and thrown them into the woods. After getting a pair of thick leather work gloves, we gathered up all the nuts we could find and I took away a bag full, most still in their devilishly protective burs. Now what, I wondered.

Enter a timely article from The Catskill Center News: Restoring The American Chestnut to the Catskill Region, by Sherret Spaulding Chase, whom I had met earlier this year in Andes, NY. In his article, Mr. Chase explained, “A network of cooperators throughout the six and one-half county Catskill Region is in order. A general need is for collection of nuts this autumn (and in the following years) from surviving Chestnuts in our region, both sprouts and independent trees. These nuts should be collected at nut fall or a few days before, before the squirrels get the nuts, and forwarded promptly to the Catskill Center, the Mountain Top Arboretum, or other appropriate cooperators.

He then spelled out how to store and where to send the seeds. Also needed soon, according to Chase, will be “… participants able and willing to sponsor long-term American chestnut plantings–they will be one to four acre plantations, nut orchards, for production of nuts and seedlings of blight tolerant American chestnuts for reintroduction to Catskill woodlands.”

The Discover article was hopeful that some organization, perhaps the American Chestnut Foundation, would develop a fungus-resistant variety of the tree through cross-breeding with somewhat resistant American chestnuts or resistant Chinese chestnuts, or perhaps through genetic engineering, or a even a cure for the blight.

As to the surviving American chestnuts in the western United States–the story is not good. According to an article in Science News, August 10, 2002, the blight has reached them. “Disease outpacing control in largest chestnut patch left.” The article quotes scientists who have been trying to stop the fungus invasion.

“Most people think of American chestnuts as long gone, thanks to an imported fungus, but scattered patches have survived. The largest, with 5,000 trees, lies in La Crosse Co., Wis. It thrived until 1987, when Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources pathologist Jane Cummings Carlson confirmed that blight had struck. At first, caretakers tried to control the outbreak by cutting down and burying all infected trees, but the disease kept reappearing.”

They then developed a version of the fungus that was not as deadly to the trees and have been pitting it against the original. Unfortunately, the original fungus seems to be spreading faster than the weakened one.

Despite the setbacks, scientists and supporters believe the American chestnut can return. Developments in genetics and plant pathology hold great promise. And, there are individuals and organization eager to win one for the tree.

Founded in 1983, “The American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation is a nonprofit scientific and educational foundation dedicated to restoring the American Chestnut to its former place in our Eastern hardwood forests. Priorities include the development of blight-resistant all-American chestnuts and economical biological control measures against chestnut blight in the forest environment. As of April 2003, our cooperating growers have planted 88,643 seedlings and 41,480 seednuts from our all-American orchards.”

My father would be pleased.


For more information or to join: The American Chestnut Foundation

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