American chestnut. Photo credit: Richard Gardner, Bugwood.org, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License
In the woods of the Eastern United States, from Georgia to Maine, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) grew. Without needing cultivation, Castanea dentata grew quickly and large in circumference. Among the tallest of all the hardwoods, the American chestnut was the perfect tree. The nuts the tree produced were plentiful, sweet in flavor, and high in nutrition. Wildlife and domestic livestock ate freely from the forest floor and farmers could gather nuts for extra money and supplemental food. The wood provided lumber that was rot resistant, strong and straight, easily split, yet light. A house or barn could be built from one tree that was just there in the woods. With the boon of the lumber industry and railroads, another product of the American chestnut was realized. The straight, strong, light lumber could be used for telegraph poles, railroad ties, and beams for mine shafts. The nuts could be exported to the cities for the winter holidays. The American chestnut provided food, shelter, and a livelihood to some. This all began to change in 1904, when chief forester for the New York Zoological Park, Hermann Merkel noticed a sickly American chestnut. It was affected by a canker disease caused by a fungus, which quickly spread. In the span of two generations a tree that was so plentiful and prolific nearly become extinct.
Reading about a forest disease threatening oak trees in her home area of San Francisco Bay, author Susan Freinkel heard experts worrying that this could be the next Chestnut blight. Wondering what her local landscape would look like without the oak trees, Susan started researching the American chestnut and the blight that was so hard to diagnose and treat.
In writing her book American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Freinkel talked to the people who never gave up on the species. Her explanation of the struggle and science used to save Castanea dentala is a fascinating and easy-to-read work of nonfiction.
If you are interested in learning more about the American chestnut, visit the American Chestnut Foundation’s website.
You may also read about Penn State University’s contribution to research regarding the restoration of the American chestnut tree.
Written by Pam Tilley, Penn State Master Gardener, Susquehanna County