Once upon a blue moon, the American chestnut tree ruled.
Years ago, this tree dominated the forests from Georgia to Maine. It was the most common tree in the woods. It was the largest tree, possessing huge trunks, growing over 90 feet high. It was a critical tree, supporting every need of the wildlife and humans. The wood that isn’t used by humans and wildlife is used to make caskets.
The mighty American chestnut personified literally the notion of cradle-to-grave.
The Usefulness of the American Chestnut
The tannin was removed and used to dye silk or make leather. The blossoms made the best honey.
Its plentiful nuts and high nutrition created food for people and wildlife. Bear, turkeys, squirrels, and deer depended on nuts for food. Rural economies relied upon the nuts for feeding families, fattening pigs, and earning cash.
Blighted by Blight
Then one of the biggest natural disasters in forest history occurred. In the early 1900s, a ravaging fungus was found on chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo. Within a few years, more than three billion chestnut trees perished in the chestnut blight on more than 150 million acres in eastern North America.
Today, you can see chestnut trees in your local woods. However, they are stumpy sprouts that barely reach over 20 feet high before perishing to the blight. The roots of the tree continue to thrive and send out sprouts. Though, the tree will never grow majestic and tall like its ancestors.
A Path Forward
Thankfully, there is optimism for the American chestnut. Recently, Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary became an experiment site for the arborists of TACF (The American Chestnut Foundation) efforts to reestablish the American chestnut tree in the northeastern woodlands.
By backcrossing Asian chestnuts and the American chestnut, the objective is to create an American chestnut that is resistant to disease, but practically American, with all the resilient assets of the majestic trees of years ago.
Wachusett Meadow’s sample orchard has five young seedlings, many originations into the program for breeding. These seedlings might not hold the key to the future in their DNA, but their existence will increase public awareness about the American chestnut and the restoration efforts.