The American Chestnut: “The Giant that Once Lived in the Woods of Pittsburgh”

We all marvel at the giant redwood trees that dot the coastal area of Northern California, but did you know that at one time the eastern part of the nation had another colossal tree? Nicknamed the “redwood of the east,” the American chestnut grew to 100 feet or more and had trunks that often spanned 16 feetAmerican Chestnut illustration in diameter. Unlike the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, this tree truly was the king of the forest, growing from the Deep South to Maine. The tree was so ubiquitous that it is estimated that one out of every four hardwood trees in the Appalachian region was an American chestnut and that there were nearly 4 billion of them growing over 200 million acres in the east.

American chestnut trees were not only loved because of their great size, but they also played an integral part in the building of this country. The wood from the tree was prized because it was straight-grained, easy to work with, lightweight, and rot-resistant. The lumber was used to create everything from cradles to caskets to musical instruments to barns. It made great fence posts and railroad ties because it was so durable.

Our State North Carolina magazine reported that in 1919, North Carolina alone produced 70 million board feet of American chestnut lumber. Its bark, which was rich in tannins, was used by tanneries to soften the hides of bear and deer. Settlers harvested the nut crop and sold it to farmers who fed it to their livestock. It was the primary source of food for bears and a wide variety of other forest creatures. The chestnuts were also a food staple for humans and were roasted and used in stuffing and bread.

Sadly, within 50 years, all those majestic trees virtually disappeared from the face of the earth, creating a cataclysm in the forest not seen before. What felled these goliaths? In 1904, forester Herman W. Merkel discovered a blight on the American chestnut trees at the New York Zoological Garden at the Bronx Zoo. The fungus had been accidentally imported into the U.S. on Asian chestnut trees, which were resistant to the blight because they had evolved along with it. The killer fungus was identified as Cryphonectria parasitica, and it entered the American chestnut trees through cracks in the bark. The fungus created orange-black cankers on the tree’s trunk and sent threadlike filaments into the cambium and wood, choking off the tree’s supply of water and nutrients, killing it.

Once one tree was infected, the fungus, which is airborne, spread to neighboring trees. Birds and other forest animals in contact with the fungus spread it as well. The blight swept across the growing region, killing trees at a rate of 50 miles per year. To halt the devastation, a “fire break” a mile wide was cut across Pennsylvania but was unsuccessful in containing the fungus. Within eight years the blight was into New England, essentially destroying the American chestnut. Although technically not entirely extinct, the American chestnut is extinct as a large forest tree. In 1912, the Plant Quarantine Act was passed to reduce the chance that a catastrophe of this magnitude would ever happen again.

Even in death, the American chestnut kept on giving. The logs of the blighted trees were used to construct fences along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the coveted “wormy chestnut” lumber is derived from diseased wood that was riddled with the holes of wood-boring insects.

Today, you can see American chestnuts sprouting from the stumps of their ancestors, but sadly their lives are often cut short as the fungus still lives in the bark of fungus-resistant trees such as the oak and ash. Most of the young chestnut trees are eventually infected and killed before ever growing to a few inches in diameter.

Here and there a small stand of untouched American chestnuts is discovered in its growing range, but their survival is precarious. However, an effort has been made to bring back the American chestnut. The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 by a group of plant scientists who recognized what a loss to the economy and forest the demise of the American chestnut was. In 1989, TACF established a breeding station, Wagner Research Farm in Meadowview, Virginia, with the hope of breeding a fungus-resistant American chestnut by breeding the Chinese chestnut’s blight resistance into the American species.

The Chinese and American chestnuts were crossed giving a 50 percent Chinese, 50 percent American tree, which was then back crossed, with the American, resulting in a 75 percent American tree. This process was repeated until only the blight resistant properties of the Chinese variety remained in these experimental American chestnuts. Today, the Meadowview site has 30,000 American chestnuts at various stages of breeding and growth.

TACF has local offices and state chapters throughout the country, and enthusiasm is growing for bringing back the American chestnut. With some scientific intervention and some luck, perhaps in coming years the American chestnut tree will reign as the king of the eastern forest and Pittsburgh will, once again, be home to giants.

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