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Saving the American Chestnut Tree

Towering over 100 feet tall and with a diameter of up to 10 feet, the American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, was known as the "Redwood of the East."At one time the American chestnut accounted for up to 25% of the forest canopy in the Eastern United States. It was a significant contributor to the rural economy, and it was an important part of the forest ecosystem. But who has seen one of these trees in the past quarter century? A deadly fungus, which probably hitchhiked to America on imported Asian chestnut trees, was first noted in a tree in 1904 at the Bronx zoo. Despite all efforts to control it, the disease quickly spread to defenseless American chestnut trees, and within 80 years only echoes of the great chestnut forests remained.

There are four main species of chestnut trees: American, European, Japanese and Chinese. Only the American has succumbed to the chestnut blight. American chestnuts are said to be superior, with a sweeter taste, than Asian chestnuts, and American chestnut wood is highly resistant to rot and was a prized building material. 

Chestnuts grow inside easily opened spiny shells.

Asian chestnut trees, which are unaffected by the disease, are sometimes planted as a replacement, but these are much smaller trees, about the size of a mature apple tree. One can no longer buy chestnut lumber, and chestnuts for sale are either imported or come from non-native trees.

Despite its demise as a food and lumber source, the American chestnut is not extinct. Sprouts still emerge from old stumps, though they usually succumb to the disease before they mature. The American Chestnut Foundation is making efforts to restore the American chestnut by breeding a genetically diverse, blight-resistant American chestnut tree. One group of blight-resistant trees is 15/16 American Chestnut and 1/16 Chinese Chestnut. These trees are now being planted in test sites to determine their suitability.

Three of these American chestnut trees were recently planted in Joe Tucker Park in Helena, Alabama, by the owner of Myers Plants and Pottery, plantsman Stewart Myers; horticulturist Fred Kapp; and members of the Helena Beautification Board.

Fred Kapp, on the left, and Stewart Myers stand by a newly-planted American chestnut tree.More American chestnut trees are being planted by this group in selected sites in our area. The hope is that these trees will grow and produce nuts, which people may pick up and plant, therefore helping to reintroduce this important tree to the landscape of the Eastern United States.

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Reader Comments (24)

Glad to hear that it's not extinct and the efforts are there to preserve it and reintroduce back. Cross fingers the efforts will work beautifully.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

It is so sad what happened to the Chestnut trees. I can only imagine what the old forests might have looked like before they died. I certainly hope the project to introduce blight resistant trees works! I've been to Tower Hill Botanic Garden not too far from me, where they are also working on blight resistant trees. I saw a Chestnut tree in their woods. It was maybe 15 feet tall, but spindly, and in the middle of succumbing to the blight, unfortunately. But I am very hopeful that one of these new varieties will be a suitable, truly blight resistant one!

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

This was a fascinating read. Like everyone, I have heard of chestnuts but unlike others I really know so little about them. Thanks for this.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDebra

Wonderful info on chestnuts. I recently read American Canopy - the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow. Amazing story of the importance of chestnuts to our nation and the incredible catastrophe of their demise. He also writes about the American elm too. Thanks for this post!

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

It is so sad when a disease is imported into a country like this. I do hope that the new trees can withstand attack and will eventually take over. Do you have any of these lovely trees in your woodland, if so I hope they are ok.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

An awesome post. Stuart is an awesome nurseryman. We have enjoyed working with him on this and other projects. He also helped us with the new planters at City Hall. We also planted about a dozen of these trees at the National Cemetery in Montevallo yesterday. Hoping in 20 years, the next generation will be glad we took the time to restore these beauties.......

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris VanCleave

This is a very decorative tree and interesting informations !

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEla

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for these almost American Chestnuts. It would be wonderful to see these trees reintroduced to our forests, parks, and gardens.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJason

What a concise and informative post on the chestnut tree! I grew up in Mississippi in the 60's with an American Chestnut tree which continues to thrive and yields a wonderful crop each fall.. Thanks for sharing..

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary Lise Parsons

I had no idea that the American Chestnuts were having this kind of problem. Thankfully they are doing research to help them out. They are a iconic tree it would be devastating to lose them.


January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJen

That is great news, Deb. I hope the trees grow and prosper. Stuart and Fred can become like Johnny Appleseed with their generosity of planting them for others to pick up the seeds to spread the tree. Fungus like this and insects like what are infecting the ash really take a toll on our native trees. Good post.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Thanks for all this interesting info, I didn’t know the American version of the chestnut tree was in danger of extinction. It is a lovely tree, not suitable for my own garden but my sister had one in her garden where they used to live.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHelene

I learned so much from this post. I must admit, I don't know much about American Chestnut trees. Although I've seen them from time to time, I didn't realize the significance of their history. Now I want to learn more. Thanks for inspiring my curiosity!

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBeth @ PlantPostings

I hadn't heard about the decline of the American chestnut - it's so sad to see magnificent tress like that taken out. I hope the experiment works!

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

Made me laugh...I have a post going up tomorrow on the Red Horse Chestnut. It only reaches about 30 to 40 feet, but a gorgeous chestnut with red flowers...It must be that great minds thing.

January 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie@Seattle Trekker

Chestnut trees here in Europe are also being attacked by a disease, I don't think it is the same one that has destroyed your American trees but it is causing devastation as a chestnuts are produced commercially in my area and there had been a trend towards growing organically before this arrived. As with your experience it is thought the insect causing the problem here arrived on packing cases from China (this may or may not be true, it is always easy, here, to blame the Chinese for every ill that exists! Thank you for sharing the images of the old trees which were truly magnificent and something I had never heard of before.

January 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Every time I read about the American chestnut it makes me sad. Six of the resistant trees were planted on the island where I vacation in Maine 10 or more years ago. Some have succumbed to the blight but others are thriving. There's hope!

January 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

How interesting! I hope these trees grow and thrive. How different our forests must have been back then. I have been thinking about the negative consequences of importing so many exotic plants as I battle Chinese privet on my property.

January 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

What a sad tale, albeit with a hint of hope. These tree diseases wreak such havoc, we face similar challenges in the uk, and still have few elm trees.

January 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJanet/Plantaliscious

Makes me wonder why such big beautiful trees are felled by a fungus while thugs like Japanese knotweed live on and on.

January 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

Very interesting post. The opening image is quite incredible. The sheer size of the tree trunks are amazing! You rarely see trees of any kind that are that size these days. Another thing that struck me was how close together the trees were. You'd think that there would be too much competition for them to be that close. The canopy of the mature chestnuts must have been very dense.
It is uplifting to read that chestnuts might have a chance at a comeback.

January 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

hopefully this is the beginning of a good news, turn the tide, story.

January 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

Deb I had read about this and was hopeful that our chestnuts might come back....glad to see where they are working on this.

January 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

I had to come back to this post to comment on the size of the trees! I knew they were one the main trees in the ecosystem of the East but didn't realize they got so big.

February 1, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

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