American Chestnut

July 21, 2010 at 1:55 am 1 comment

You’d have a hard time finding today’s plant on a walk through the city. In most cases it has been completely wiped out, or it’s just a shadow of its former self. But its story is so monumentally tragic, and has so much to say about our interaction with plants, that it’s worth telling. Plus, it has a sci-fi ending!

The American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once one of the most common trees in eastern North America. It took up a quarter of the hardwood canopy, and could reach a height of 100 feet. Its nuts were an invaluable food for animals, as well as the inspiration for the lyric “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”.

In 1904, a forester noticed that some of the Chestnut trees in the New York Zoological Garden were suffering from an unusual disease. Called the Chestnut blight, it likely originated from Asian chestnut trees that were sold in nurseries. The American Chestnut had no immunity to the foreign pathogen. It traveled rapidly outward from the New York area, and by the early 1950s most of the great American Chestnut trees were gone.

When we walk through lush eastern forests today, it’s hard to imagine that one of the most important trees is missing. You can still find American Chestnut wood fences and cabins that stand incongruously in a Chestnut-free forest. Even more strangely, you can sometimes find a small shrubby Chestnut just a few feet high, as in this photo (right) — doomed little sprouts growing from a trunk that was destroyed by disease.

We almost completely destroyed the American Chestnut, and strangely, we’re now engineering its return. Scientists are creating a blight-resistant American Chestnut. Here’s the plan: first they cross some of the few remaining healthy trees with Asian trees, and then they breed them until they’re mostly American Chestnut. Like so many other plants, this tree’s future is now inseparable from our own.


Entry filed under: Trees.

Echinacea Chickory

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. naturalist.charlie  |  July 23, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    I really miss Chestnut even though I never saw the forests with it present 😦

    There is a tiny resprouting one in Centennial Woods of Burlington. We also found one in Shenadoah. Sure is a sad story though. They used to have them around Pittsburgh too.


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