The American chestnut was once a mighty species of tree that dominated the forests of eastern North America. The trees grew to 100 feet tall with trunks spanning 4 feet or more across at the base. In springtime the giant trees were covered with large white blossoms. In the fall they produced an abundant crop of delicious edible nuts beloved by humans and wildlife. The wood was prized for making furniture and for its rot-resistant qualities. Tannin from the leaves was used to cure leather. The natives who lived here before white men arrived and our forebears who settled here depended on the tree for wood and food, including the game that fed on the nuts.
Then in 1904, in a shipment of wood from Asia, a scourge arrived in New York. The disease was named Chestnut Blight and it was caused by a fast spreading fungus. The fungus killed trees rapidly by choking the circulatory system. Once infected, within two years a giant would be dead. Within forty years, the great chestnuts were wiped out. At least 3.5 billion chestnut trees died, one-quarter of the timber contained in the forests of the eastern US.
Today, the species survives as shoots from the roots of trees that once lived. These shoots become shrubs, even small trees, before dying. To find a tree larger than a foot in diameter is extremely rare. The blight kills trees before they have a chance to get old.
One early spring day about six years ago, I was hiking my property and happened to look down and spot a prickly, brown ball on the forest floor that reminded me of a sea urchin. It was the spiny husk of an American chestnut tree. I started looking around and discovered several more husks. Then I noticed the singular long, toothed leaves lying on the ground. In some of the husks I found the dried, withered remains of unpollinated chestnuts. The top photo is of part of my collection from that day and also includes the dried long male catkins that fall after the tree flowers. The forest had not leafed out yet, but I had an idea which tree was the chestnut. It was a slim, tall specimen with a silvery trunk about one foot in diameter. The smooth bark had a distinctive scratchy feel.
I returned later in the spring and saw that yes, indeed, it was a chestnut tree! A tree such as this is far rarer than diamonds. I searched the area and soon found a smaller chestnut about 30 feet away. It had a diameter of about five inches and was maybe 15 feet tall. Those are the only chestnut trees I have been able to locate on our 75 acres. That second tree is very important because chestnuts are not self-pollinating. They have both male and female flowers, but must pollinate with another tree to produce fertile nuts.
I took photos of the trees. The second photo shows a whorl of leaves and the smaller tree on the left directly behind. The third photo is of the larger tree, I estimated it’s height at about 50 feet. These two probably grew from the roots of a fallen ancestor. It died so long ago that no remains of the trunk are visible.
That fall I retuned and once more collected burrs, as the spiny nut husks are called, nuts and dried leaves. Wildlife were eating the nuts although I couldn’t really find any meat in them. The next spring I girdled a very large basswood tree that was competing with the larger chestnut. The basswood will slowly die and drop its limbs without damaging the trees around it.
This year the older tree is about 18″ in diameter and maybe 60 feet tall. The younger about 7″-8″ in diameter. The baby has nearly doubled its height since I found it. Neither tree shows any sign of the blight cankers and both have full, lush tops. I girdled a small beech tree competing with the younger chestnut. I hope that very soon both these trees will bloom and provide fertile nuts. I can hardly wait to taste wild native chestnuts. I think of the giants of the past and dream of my two little orphans growing to giants in their own time, free of the terrible blight.