THE AMERICAN CHESTNUT
In late October, a friend and I went to Pipestem State Park near Athens, West Virginia. The setting is exquisite with abundant forests, changing leaf color, and wonderful mountains. As luck would have it, there was considerable rain on our second day and so we looked for an indoor activity. AHA!!!!! The resident naturalist, LYNN and her dog Alice, were giving a lecture on the demise and resurgence of the American Chestnut Tree. I love chestnuts roasting on an open fire, so it was a perfect time for us to learn about this beautiful tree.
The American chestnut was at one time the most important food and timber tree species in the eastern half of the U.S because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes. The tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes. The wood was used wherever strength and rot-resistance were needed.
In colonial America, chestnut was a preferred species for log cabins, especially the bottom rot-prone foundation logs. Later posts, poles, flooring, and railroad ties were all made from chestnut lumber.
The edible nut was also a significant contributor to the rural economy. Hogs and cattle were often fattened for market by allowing them to forage in chestnut-dominated forests. Chestnut ripening coincided with the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree.
The chestnut was almost completely destroyed by a bark fungus accidentally introduced from the Orient in 1904. Within 40 years, over 30 million acres of chestnut trees were killed from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi. This tragedy was the largest ecological disasters in American history. There has been essentially no chestnut lumber sold in the U.S. for decades, and the bulk of the annual 20-million-pound nut crop now comes from introduced chestnut species or imported nuts.
The Chestnut’s beautiful, rot-resistant lumber was used for everything from furniture to fence posts, and its tannin used in the tanning industry. The loss of the chestnut, at the time of the Great Depression, had a devastating effect on the people and wildlife of the Appalachian Mountains. The economic loss from the chestnut’s demise amounted to untold millions of dollars.
Despite its decimation as a lumber and nut-crop species, the American chestnut has not gone extinct. The American chestnut has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites, but inevitably succumb to the blight and die back to the ground. It is considered functionally extinct by the USDA but the blight fungus does not kill the tree’s root system underground.
Accordingly, there are millions of sprouts that can be found in the eastern US. Although the sprouts may only reach 15 feet or so before the blight kills them, some produce nuts before they die leading to new generations of trees to grow.
A very small number of mature chestnuts still exist, apparently immune or resistant to the blight. Some foresters have been collecting seeds from these mother trees, with a goal of producing a blight resistant chestnut tree by hybridizing the American chestnut with other species of chestnuts. This is an 18-29-year project.
Meadowview, Virginia is home to The American Chestnut Foundation’s research farms. This property and its facilities are used to breed American chestnut trees for resistance to the blight fungus. Meadowview includes more than 50,000 trees at various stages of the breeding process, planted on more than 150 acres. The American Chestnut Foundation is based in Asheville, North Carolina with five regional offices located throughout the Appalachian region. www.acf.org
If you have never been to Pipestem, put it on your bucket list for weekend adventures. The beauty of the place is wondrous. The McKeever Lodge has lovely rooms and spectacular views. There is outdoor and indoor swimming, a zip line course, a tramway up and down the mountain, four eateries, a golf course, a nature center, a recreation center plus cabins and a campground. www.wvstateparks.com