The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) was once the undisputed king of the forest, its reign spreading down the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida and covering territory as far west as the Ohio Valley. Its regal beauty was the inspiration for poets, artists and songwriters. In all, the chestnut made up 200 million acres of woodlands before its numbers were decimated by the chestnut blight.
The American chestnut is a large deciduous tree that is part of the beech tree family and features a dense, spreading canopy of leaves and a distinctive and delicious fruit. In the spring, it produces long, slender white blossoms, giving it a unique beauty. It was once the backbone of Appalachian communities. Appalachian farmers used chestnuts to feed livestock, while the wood was used for everything from fuel to furniture.
But all that changed with the coming of the blight, an exotic fungus that was introduced into North America in the late 1850s by trees imported from Asia. The spores of the fungus were spread through air, rain and even the fur of rodents that inhabited the forests and used the trees for shelter and food. In all, the blight destroyed a quarter of these native hardwoods, or about four billion chestnut trees, in the eastern United States. By 1950, the American chestnut tree had effectively disappeared from the American landscape.
The fungus, which attacks the bark of the tree, is still alive and well and kills most chestnut trees by or before they have grown to 20 feet.
Although all may seem bleak for the American chestnut, organizations such as the American Chestnut Foundationand the United States Forest Service, working with The University of Tennessee, have been actively working for the past 30 years or more to re-establish the tree in wild forests. The restoration efforts have been aimed at crossing Chinese chestnut trees with the American species in the hopes of producing a blight-resistant hybrid. By selecting only those American trees that possess a natural resistance to the blight, the Foundation believes it is possible to assure a healthy tree. The ultimate goal of the Foundation was to produce blight-resistant trees that are 94 percent American chestnut. The Southern Appalachians, ravaged by years of strip mining and where the American chestnut originally reigned supreme, was chosen as the testing area for these hybrid seedlings.
For those interested in helping restore the American chestnut tree to its former glory, seeds are available for planting. Individuals who think they may have found an American chestnut tree can submit a leaf sample to determine if the tree is in fact an American chestnut. State and local chapters of the American Chestnut Foundation solicit and recruit volunteers to assist in various capacities with the restoration project.
In a 2010 article published in “The Washington Post,” then president of the American Chestnut Foundation, Bryan Burhans, reported that it will take some 75 to 100 years to determine the success of the group’s restoration efforts. If so, the American chestnut may once again reclaim its reign in the forests of Appalachia and the eastern United States.