Today’s factismal: There were once more than three billion American Chestnut trees across the American northeast; today, 99.9% of them have vanished thanks to logging and the chestnut blight.
If you had gone to visit George Washington at Mount Vernon, as you rode n your carriage up the hill you would have seen dozens of tall, stately trees shading the road. And, had your visit have come during the winter, then you might have been treated to the roasted nuts of the tree. And, had you gone to hist workshops, you would have seen stacks of wood taken from these fast-growing, hardy trees. This tree that was so giving of its bounty was the American chestnut, and once it ruled a swath across America from the shores of Maine to the Gulf coasts of Alabama and Mississippi. In the 1800s, one out of every four trees in the eastern forests was a chestnut.
The trees were as popular as they were hardy. Their wood had a straight grain, which made it easier to mill, and was resistant to rot and termites. Though the wood was strong, it weighed less than oak making it a favorite for boats, carriages, and furniture. And the eponymous nut of the chestnut was delicious both raw and roasted; it was particularly prized as a stuffing ingredient.
But something happened in 1904 that changed everything. Someone brought a Chinese chestnut into New York, probably as an ornamental planting. This wouldn’t have been a problem but for the fungus that came along with it. Known as “chestnut blight”, this fungus was native to China, where the chestnuts had developed a resistance to its effects. Alas, American chestnuts had no such immunity. Within fifty years, the fungus had killed more than 99.9% of the American chestnuts. Where American chestnuts once outnumbered people more than a thousand to one, now they are outnumbered more than one hundred to one.
Today, most American chestnuts are small saplings that have just begun to grow or are transplants that were moved to regions far away from the fungus’ ravages. Though several groups are trying to develop blight-resistant varieties of the tree, either by breeding those trees that have survived or by developing Chinese-American chestnut hybrids, the species’ ultimate survival is very much in doubt.
If you’d like to help with conservation efforts, then why not join the American Chestnut Foundation? They need people to help them locate surviving trees and to plant and care for hybrids. Perhaps someday, the American forests will once more be home to the American chestnut.