Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Wild Neighbor: American Chestnut Tree (Castanea dentata)

I happened upon a special tree near the top of Turkey Path at Leonard Harrison State Park on October 3rd and have been back to see it again twice since that day. What an awesome tree it is, and I'm glad I had eyes to see it!

It was so small and scrappy of a tree that it would have been easy to overlook. But contrary to it's appearance this shrub of a tree has been fighting for a hundred solid years. 1904 was the year that the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly called Chestnut blight, was introduced to New York City. It spread very rapidly from there infecting virtually every American Chestnut tree in the Eastern half of the United States. Within 40 years no American chestnut trees were left standing.

They were a giant of a tree; a hundred feet tall, reliably producing a heavy crop of chestnuts each Fall, and the trunks of mature American chestnut trees were so massive that if you wanted to hug one you'd have to find four or five adult friends, join hands, and streeeeetch your arms as far as they could go to embrace its full circumference!

Photo from
The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) was arguably the most important tree in the forest; for the wildlife and for the lumber industry. If you want to read more about the historical significance of the American chestnut tree I recommend this article produced by The American Chestnut Foundation.

 Cryphonectria parasitica has made dwarves of giants. For many of the American chestnut trees the fungus proved to be an unbearable struggle, and they died. However, there are scattered remnants of this incredible species which once numbered about 4 billion strong in the Eastern United States. There was a time when 1 in 4 trees in the forest was an American chestnut tree.

I did say that there are remnants of the American chestnut tree in our forests and this is true. The photos in this article are of the one I happened upon at Turkey Path.

But why is it so small?? It's because that pesky fungus (diabolical might be a better choice of adjective) makes its way into the bark of the tree causing it to crack. Too many cracks and you have a dead tree. Well, kind of. Some of the American chestnut trees have been continuing to produce new shoots from the same root system every time the above-ground portion of the tree becomes a snag (standing dead tree).

If you're observant during your outings in the forest you may notice a snag surrounded at the base by new shoots from the same root system. If you do, take a look at the bark. The bark of an American chestnut tree is dark brown with light speckles. Take a look at the leaves. The leaves of American chestnut trees are vibrant green from Spring into early Fall, narrow, oblong, pointed, and toothed along the edges, turning yellow before they drop.

Its been reported that there are isolated patches throughout the Appalachian Mountains where some have grown to the thickness of a telephone pole and are producing nuts (which are brown with more fuzz than a Chinese chestnut and come packaged in a protective layer of green needle-like spikes!).

Some good news is that your great-great grandchildren may one day enjoy spending time with a giant Chestnut tree like your great-great grandfather may have done in centuries past. The American Chestnut Foundation has been working on producing a hybrid Chestnut tree that has all of the physical characteristics of an American chestnut tree AND the blight-resistant qualities of a Chinese chestnut tree.

 I was given $60 for a Wildlife Tour that I led at Barbour Rock Trail on October 4th and I've been thinking about what I want to do with that money. I don't charge for the Wildlife Tours that I lead but I do welcome the money if someone feels led to compensate me for my services. I knew I wanted use it for something more fun and meaningful than using it to help pay off student loan debt or to buy groceries.

My time spent with my Wild Neighbor along Turkey Path has helped me to make that determination. I've decided to give all $60 to support The American Chestnut Foundation in their continuing work. If you'd like to join me in supporting the work of The American Chestnut Foundation for he sake of our Wild Neighbor the American chestnut tree, here is a link to the ACF's Membership and Giving page.

 Lastly, here is my personal reflection of my time spent with my Wild Neighbor the American chestnut tree:

Meeting you here moves me to wonder what it was like a-hundred-and-twenty years ago to saunter in your shade, or to lean against your mighty trunk for a mid-day siesta. Many of your kin have died, the weakening done by the dreaded fungus proved too much to bear. But you remain. Clearly your strength is not in your stature, but in your perseverance. You've got grit; like Rocky Balboa you are a fighter who keeps getting knocked down but every time you get back up. A remnant of a species that once dominated these hills in centuries past, with whom I am thankful to have made the acquaintance today.

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