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American Chestnut Tree Resurgence

Updated on September 11, 2013

The American Chestnut Tree and Environmental Disaster

For thousands of years the American chestnut tree lived and thrived in North America. Then starting in the early twentieth century the trees started getting sick and dying. There once was old growth forests of mostly chestnut trees. These trees nourished insects, birds, animals and man. They were known as bread trees due to their importance. Now they are eerily gone leaving desolation or other species like oaks, maples and hickories to take their place. How could this happen? Could this happen again with other trees?

What Happened To The American Chestnut Tree ?

The American chestnut is an indigenous hard wood tree that populated woodlands, mountains and cities in the eastern United States. It had populated these areas for tens of thousands of years. It was said that a squirrel could travel from New York to Georgia using only the branches of American chestnut trees without ever touching the ground. The chestnuts were a great food source for humans and animals both wild and domesticated. The nuts were also gathered, sold or bartered by communities like Appalachia as an important part of the local economy. They were a nutritious food source to stave of hunger and prevent starvation in lean times. The hardwood from the trees were used for many things.

Around the turn of the last century there was a chestnut tree blight (cryphonectria parasitica) that decimated the species, and caused much hardship on humans, animals and insects that depended on it. It was brought to the United States with imported Asian chestnut trees which were immune to it. The devastation is still felt today. It is said that by 1950 about 4 billion trees, occupying 200 million acres of woodland died. During the early 1800's certain chestnut trees were slowly dying in wet areas from a disease called phytophthora root rot. And even before the blight the trees were plagued by pests called Chestnut weevils which are controlled with pesticides. Despite this it took the blight to really cause the devastation that happen.

One glimmer of hope was that the roots of these trees were not dead and would attempt to grow only to be killed by the blight. From this scientists have been working with trying to bring back a blight resistant American chestnut tree. By cross-breeding with the Chinese tree, they are trying to produce a hybrid tree that is mostly like the American variety. Others are working with only American Chestnut trees and trying to get a blight resistant variety.

The American Chestnut Tree ( Castanea Dentata)

There Were Many Uses For This Tree

The American chestnut is a tree that was once very numerous up and down the eastern United States from Maine down to Mississippi. This tree is the largest of the Castanea species. Old growth trees could be found at 100 feet or more and the trunk could be 5 to 8 feet in diameter.

The tree would obligingly drop the chestnuts and litter the ground just there for the taking. Every fall they would be harvested and stored for the winter. They are reputed to be better tasting than all the other chestnut varieties. Their nuts were also smaller than all the other varieties, about ½ to 1 inch in diameter. This was a factor in importing the other varieties of chestnut trees to get a larger chestnut for mercantile purposes.

The American chestnuts would be used to fatten hogs and other livestock at no cost to the animals owner. Adults and children gathered them up to be sold or bartered for needed provisions. Therefore they were very important to the local and rural economy. The nuts also nourished all types of wild animals from bears to squirrels and even birds. Wild game that thrived on the nuts would then be shot as a needed protein source to feed families. Once the trees were gone wildlife populations of turkeys, black bear, pigeons and many others vastly decreased. Certain insects that were specific to the Chestnut tree became extinct.

Chestnuts could be shelled and eaten fresh, they could be roasted whole or made into flour. The leaves were heated in water and used as cough medicine. Mattresses would also be stuffed with the leaves.

Wood from the tree was used for many different types of building projects including constructing log cabins. The wood was prized for its strength and rot resistance. Chestnut trees grew tall,straight and split along the grain which made it good for beams and poles. It is easy to work with and because of its high tannin count it was utilized in leather works.

Other Chestnut Varieties

All Have Good Qualities

European Chestnut Tree (Castanea sativa)

The first known account of European Chestnut trees being imported to the United States was by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello around 1773. He grafted it onto the American variety. The founder of The Dupont Company brought some over with him from France in 1799. He combined them with the American Chestnut and planted several hybrid varieties. Most chestnuts we get in the U.S. today is from this variety. It is only a little more resistant to the blight than the American variety.

They grow almost as tall as the American variety.

Japanese Chestnut (Castanea crenata)

The first written accounts of Japanese chestnut trees say they were imported in 1876 by S.B. Parsons of Flushing, N.Y. This sounds like it was Samuel Bowne Parsons who ran the Parsons Nursery with his brother. Flushing at that time was a town in the county of Queens, Long Island which is now a part of New York City. The area was noted as the home of several nurseries. Mr Parsons received seeds of the Japanese chestnut tree by mistake when he sent away for lilly bulbs. He is said to have planted some and gave the others away. This variety has more resistance to the blight than the American and European, the nuts are larger but not as sweet as them.

Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima)

This tree was first introduced to the United States in 1853 then in 1901 by a G.D. Brill. This variety is not totally immune to the fungus. Strong, healthy trees can withstand it without much damage but sick, stressed trees can succumb to the disease. The nuts are larger and sweeter than the Japanese variety.

History of the Chestnut Tree

Chestnut tree fossils date back millions of years. These trees have been cultivated in Asia for many hundreds of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans also cultivated them and used it as a food and wood source. The Roman philosopher Pliny mentions it in his writings claiming the trees originally came from Sardis in Asia Minor around 500BC.

DNA implies that the trees do have an Asian origin and made their way to Europe and North America. The differences between the Asian, European and North American variety is believed to have happened in the Eocene epoch ( 54 to 38 million years ago) And further diversification happened during the Miocene epoch ( 23 to 6 million years ago).

Excellent video on the chestnut tree. Over 27 min. but well worth it.

Telling about the good works of the

American Chestnut Foundation in working to bring back our Chestnut trees.

Video On How To Grow A Chestnut Tree

Photo courtesy".
Photo courtesy".

Squirrels In The Treetops

Once Upon A Time There Were All These Trees

Many years ago our world was full of trees. Now not so much. To tell the story about our tree filled past the squirrel is the traveler to different parts. And so the old sayings .....

A squirrel could travel from the Ohio River to Lake Erie without ever having to touch the ground.

A squirrel could travel from Maine to Texas without touching the ground.

A squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi river traveling treetop to treetop without ever touching the ground.

It's said that squirrels could travel from tree to tree from the Northeast to the Mississippi without ever having to touch the ground.

In colonial times a squirrel could travel from Boston to St. Louis without touching the ground.

Pioneers used to say that a squirrel could travel a squirrel's lifetime without ever coming down out of the White Pines.

When Columbus landed on the shores of North America a squirrel could travel from one coast to another without touching the ground.


A squirrel could travel from Kingston, Ont., to Toronto without touching the ground.

Britain was so heavily wooded that a squirrel could travel from one end of the kingdom to another without ever touching the ground.

A squirrel could travel from Edinburgh to London from tree to tree without ever touching the ground.

A squirrel could travel at treetop from the Severn to the Wash.

Wales was so wooded a squirrel could travel from one end of the valleys to the other without touching the ground.

In Ireland it was said, the woods were so dense that a squirrel could travel from the mountain to the lough, hopping from branch to branch, and never touch the ground.

Ireland was once so heavily wooded it was said a squirrel could travel from Cork to Killarney without touching the ground.

At one time in Ireland a squirrel could travel from branch to branch through all of the four provinces without touching the ground.

A squirrel could travel from St. Petersburgh to Moscow without alighting on the ground.

In the old days a squirrel could travel all the way from the Pyrenees to Seville without setting foot on the ground.

A squirrel could travel from end to end of the Iberian Peninsula by jumping from tree to tree.

In Roman times a squirrel could travel from the Urals to the coast without touching the ground.

5000 years ago in Lebanon a squirrel could travel the whole country by merely hopping from tree to tree

In the first century it is said that, without touching the ground, a squirrel could travel in continuous woodland from north of the Alps to the Baltic.

And Chestnut Tree Specific

A squirrel could travel the chestnut canopy from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground.

A squirrel could travel from Maine to Florida using only chestnut branches.

Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree

Poem and Songs


Under the spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,

His face is like the tan;

His brow is wet with honest sweat,

He earns whate'er he can.

And looks the whole world in the face,

For he owes not any man.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Under the spreading chestnut tree

Where I held you on my knee

Oh how happy we could be!

Under the spreading chestnut tree

Under the spreading chestnut tree

I'll kiss you and you'll kiss me

Oh how happy we will be

Under the spreading chestnut tree"

Under the the spreading chestnut tree

Where I held you on my knee

There we'll raise a family

Under the spreading chestnut tree

-Children's Song


Under the spreading chestnut tree

I sold you and you sold me.

There lie they, and here lie we

Under the spreading chestnut tree."

-George Orwell

What Do You Think About The Chestnut Tree?

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    • profile image

      ratetea 5 years ago

      It really excites me that these trees are beginning to make a comeback; I've seen increasing numbers of disease-resistant trees planted both in parks and in nature preserves recently. Thank you for writing to raise awareness of this issue; it's a classic example of ecological devastation caused by introduced disease--and one of the strongest arguments to avoid importing new non-native species.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Chestnut trees are pretty, and I sure learned a lot from your article this morning over a cup of coffee. :)

    • profile image

      ohcaroline 8 years ago

      This is a very interesting lens. I remember seeing wormy chestnut trees in TN. Is that a different variety? Good job. 5* I'm lensrolling it to my succulent page.

    • AppalachianCoun profile image

      AppalachianCoun 8 years ago

      Wonderful lens. Thank-you for such great info. We hope for the return of the American Chestnut Tree.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 8 years ago

      Cool lens -- I see your chestnut tree has met my buckeye tree! ;)