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Historic, useful tree making a comeback

Ken Cobb

I started doing this weekly outdoor column in 2007. One of my first stories was about the “loss of the chestnuts” and the effects of this loss.

The American chestnut was a tree that was a giant in the forests of the eastern United States. I don’t know how many times my mother would tell me when she was a little girl about seeing chestnut trees that were so large that it would take three-to-five people to reach around.

The American chestnut was one of the best trees in the nation for timber and the nuts it would yield. A typical mature American chestnut tree would often be 100 feet tall with a diameter of up to five feet. Such a tree would be branch-free for the first 50 feet. Loggers from the early 20th century would often tell stories about loading an entire railroad boxcar with lumber that was cut from only one American chestnut tree.

In 1904, the chestnut blight struck. It was first noticed in the Bronx Zoo of New York City. This fungus-type tree disease spread rapidly. By 1950, approximately four billion (not million) American chestnut trees were destroyed because of this blight. Researchers estimated that the total area affected by the chestnut blight was larger than the state of Texas. The American chestnut blight is considered by some to be the largest ecological disaster of the 20th century.

The range of this forest giant was from Northern Georgia to Southern Maine on the nation’s east coast. It extended as far west as Michigan and Mississippi.

The American chestnut was a prolific bearer of nuts, which provided mast or food for all kinds of wildlife. Black bears were known to eat the American chestnuts to fatten up for the winter. In years when the beech, hickory and oak was scarce, the squirrels would depend on the American chestnut to get them through the winter. My father and grandfather agreed that when the squirrel numbers started going down in the 1920s, it was because of the “loss of the chestnuts.”

Despite this decimation of a valuable lumber and nut-producing tree, the American chestnut is not extinct. In the past 50 years, several individuals, organizations and universities have attempted to reintroduce the American chestnut to the nation’s Eastern forests. West Virginia University is participating in this program.

Various cooperators have attempted to breed surviving American chestnut trees with experimentally grown American chestnut seedlings. Another technique, called back crossing, is being used by the American Chestnut Foundation in an attempt to restore the American chestnut to its original habitat. The results have been somewhat limited, largely due to the lack of knowledge about the chestnut blight.

While these massive efforts to resurrect the American chestnut are underway with the long-term goal of returning this once giant of a tree to its original range, it is going to take years, decades and maybe centuries to achieve. The goal to breed trees that are essentially American chestnut, but blight resistant, is going to take time, patience and plenty of expertise. The researchers are not trying to replace the American chestnut — they want to develop a blight-resistant tree to where it has the ability to survive and reproduce in its own forest environment.

Nature itself is going to kill the blight that destroyed the American chestnut trees in the first half of the 20th century, but this could be several hundred years down the road. In the meantime, anyone who would like for this magnificent tree to make a comeback would do well to consider planting American chestnut trees sometime in the future. Such seedlings are affordable and can be purchased at several sites online.