Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The American Chestnut

“By 1950, the keystone species of more than 30 million acres of eastern forests (roughly the size of New York) had been essentially eliminated. Millions of acres of dead, but still standing trees, were all that remained.”

So reads a sign in a small park called Idylbrook Field in the town of Medway, near my home here in Massachusetts. On the sign are photos of black-and-white moonscapes populated with the looming carcasses of trees killed by an Asian fungus that was accidentally introduced to the continental U.S. in 1904. Behind the sign are rows of young trees - green, and for the moment, healthy. Here, the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) ( is working to bring the American chestnut, Castanea dentata, back from the brink of extinction.

There are barns and split-rail fences made out of chestnut wood that still stand. Chestnut is, or I should say was, an exceptionally good tree for timber. The trees were fast-growing , tall, hard-wooded, and as resistant to rot as redwood. In old-growth areas, trees could average a hundred feet tall and five feet in diameter. To give you some comparison, look at a towering oak tree. A hundred years ago, that oak would have been an understory tree in a chestnut grove.

When the chestnut fell, it wasn’t the soundless tree falling in the forest: it was a great blow to the timber industry, and its fall led to the nation’s first plant quarantine laws. But what unnerves me is that most Americans no longer know about this profound and recent change in America’s forests. Ask a typical person where a five-foot diameter tree should be growing, and they’ll tell you to look in the Sequoia National Forest; yet on the TACF sign is a photo of loggers posing in front of a chestnut trunk ten feet wide.

If a plant of such physical and economic girth can be forgotten in a matter of decades, what of the other native plants of less importance to us that have quietly dwindled, unnoticed, right beneath our feet? We may stop to wonder where the butterfly has gone that we saw during our childhood; it turns out that the butterfly required a particular humble plant to reproduce, and that plant has been forced into ever-decreasing margins by parking lots, lawns, and the blooming deserts maintained by well-meaning gardeners.

This is why most of my own gardening efforts go to raising native plants. I strive to make an Eden of my suburban lot while simultaneously providing a refuge for flora and fauna otherwise forced to survive off of the litter-strewn space behind the pizza shop down the street. As of now I am eyeing my yard for potential locations to plant some of the American Chestnut Foundation’s seedlings, which are available online. For two and a half decades, the forward-thinking folk at TAFC have been working on a cross between American chestnut and Chinese, which is blight-resistant. Please consider planting one of TACF’s seedlings in your own yard to assist the breeding program.


MrILoveTheAnts said...

If I had the room I'd do that in a second. If I find someone with the land I'll be sure to suggest it.

Michelle said...

Hi Mr.Ants! That's good of you to do! You know, there is a chance that the trees they make available aren't blight resistant. You could plant one with the expectation that the blight will kill it - I'm sure the insects would love it. Alternatively, you could plant a chinquapin, which are shrubs that have also been hit hard by the blight. Cheers!

Ovenbird said...

Old barns in New England are dated by the timber from which they were constructed. The oldest barns have roof ridge beams cut from a single tree. The eastern old growth forests which greeted the pilgrims were amazing. And we have all but forgotten that we have even forgotten that they existed.

My home town in Missouri was clear-cut during the Civil War for firewood, so the oldest trees in the area are fewer than 150 years old. I wonder what a 200 year old hardwood tree looks like?