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.


Butcher's Broom in the Garden

I recently acquired Ruscus aculeatus, commonly called Butcher's Broom, for my woodland garden. A spot near a tree needed an evergreen to provide some winter interest. Historically, butchers used this plant to make brooms for their shops, thus the name. Butcher's Broom grows to about two to three feet, with small stiff leaves terminating with single, sharp spines. Because of its height, another common name is Knee Holly. 

When I first saw the plant at the nursery, I eyed the prickly leaves with doubt. One needs thick gloves to handle this plant! However, the dark green, lustrous leaves are quite beautiful, reminiscent of holly leaves, although Butcher's Broom is in the lily family, not holly. What won me over are the berries: bright red and marble-sized!

A native to southern England, Butcher's broom grows in US hardiness zones 7 - 9. It loves moist, well-drained situations, but it adapts to most soils and is drought-tolerant. It is an excellent choice for woodlands, enjoying partial to full shade. Small greenish-white flowers are produced in spring. Traditionally, one needed both male and female plants for berry production, but there are now hermaphrodite forms available that have both stamens and pistils (the male and female parts) on the same plant. This is the type I was fortunate to find for my own garden. The flowers are followed by large berries that ripen to scarlet red in September, then provide a cheerful decorative note to the garden all the way into January.

Butcher's Broom will happily survive neglect. Old leaves will turn to brown skeletons after several years, and one may want to remove them, but otherwise little care is needed. New leaves will have grown to take the place of old ones. The plant will slowly spread by rhizomes and may eventually form a small colony.

I put my Butcher's Broom close to a path in the woodlands so I can enjoy it on my walks, but left plenty of room for it to expand without endangering visitors with its sharp leaf-tips. I think an evergreen fern would make a great companion, so I plan to place a native holly fern nearby. I am fortunate that here in Alabama the ground does not freeze in winter, so on a pretty day I can get out and plant in the garden!