The American Chestnut was once known as The King of Trees: it is the tallest species of chestnut tree, easily reaching 90 feet and taller. Its wood is strong, light and rot-resistant and was used for everything from fence-rails to furniture. Its nuts are sweeter than the European version, and were used not only for human consumption, but also served as a staple livestock feed.
Until the early 20th century, one in four trees on the East Coast of the United States were American Chestnuts, dominating the hardwood forests of Appalachia from Georgia to Maine.
So, why have you never seen an American Chestnut?
In 1905 the chestnut trees of the Bronx Zoo died of blight. Within a few months the blight had spread throughout New York, then up and down the Eastern seaboard. By the 1940s the population of American Chestnuts had dwindled from about six billion to a few thousand. The blight, it was discovered, had come to America via the ornamental Chinese Chestnut. While the Chinese Chestnut was immune, the American Chestnut had no resistance.
The destruction of the American Chestnut was probably the largest ecological disaster in the country’s history. The extinction of the passenger pigeon in the 19th century and the ravages of Dutch Elm disease had a bigger impact on the national consciousness, but the American Chestnut was a key part of the Appalachian economy and an essential staple to the diets of many species of wildlife.
European Chestnuts imported to America quickly die of blight. The Chinese Chestnut can never fill the gap left by the American Chestnut, it is a small tree and its nuts are relatively tasteless.
Botanists have been trying to breed a blight-resistant American Chestnut for 70 years, either by identifying the disease-resistant survivors of the old blight (a few hundred remain in America) or by cross-breeding American and Chinese Chestnuts.
Since 2009 the American Chestnut Foundation has successfully bred a Chestnut which is 15/16 American, and 1/16 Chinese, which they believe is disease resistant while retaining all the desirable qualities of the classic American Chestnut, which they call “Restoration Chestnut 1.0”. Landowners and conservation groups all over the East have been participating in test plantings of these new chestnuts, and the American Forest Service has begun experimental plantings in national forests. The hope is that in 30 years or so a strong enough chestnut, perhaps “Restoration Chestnut 3.0”, will have been bred to support mass plantings across its old range.
Sometimes conservation goals are futile. Other times they imply intolerable changes to the economy and human livelihood. The restoration of the American Chestnut is both attainable and beneficial, and would be an achievement surpassing other successes like the restoration of the turkey and bald eagle to their native ranges. It is an exciting project to get behind.