Once, the east coast was entirely covered with American chestnut trees, which spread in dense canopies from Maine to Mississippi and Florida.
Then, these trees were about 4 billion in number, and were really huge, with a height of 100 feet tall and 9 feet around.
The nuts of the trees were edible, and people roasted the chestnuts, add them stewed into puddings, and used them ground into flour for cakes and bread.
People often boiled the leaves and used them as natural remedies. These trees were constantly present in American literature.
For instance, in the Thoreau’s journal, he believed it was a mistake to pelt them with rocks in order to shake the nuts loose in Walden woods, musing that the “old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance.”
These trees were a great part of everyday life of Americans, people enjoyed the shades they offered in town squares, represented a mainstay of American woodcraft, and were commonly used by pioneers for log cabins.
Unfortunately, you cannot easily find a mature American chestnut in the wild these days. Such discoveries are even reported in the national press, as according to the American Chestnut Foundation, they are “technically extinct.”
They were destroyed by blight which still lives in the wild, so they now grow enough to flower and seed, and die as saplings. By the 1950s, they were reduced to shrubs.
Namely, the main culprit was a fungus imported from Asia, which spread easily and attached to the feathers of birds and the fur of animals. During rainstorms, the spores were released and tracked to other trees through footsteps.
Trees got the infection through small injuries to the bark, made by insects. As explained in a Pennsylvanian paper, “It looks like a target filled full of small shot holes.”
The first time blight was reported was in 1904, when it was spotted on a tree in New York’s Botanical Garden, so it is believed that the first chestnut trees were infected in the 1890s.
After six years, the panic was widespread, which led to the formation of state commissions, which urged people to chop down trees with any signs of blight.
The Citizen, a paper from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, which was the center of the chestnut trees, warned: “Woodman, burn that tree; spare not a single bough.”
Numerous scientists and experts, together with the public and the government, tried to save the trees, but they just faced a financial and emotional loss.
“Efforts to stop the spread of this bark disease have been given up,” claimed The Bismarck Daily Tribune in 1920, and the value of the chestnut trees was $400,000,000 as recently as ten years before.
Yet, the loss was inevitable, and it marked the end of a “conspicuous and beautiful feature of the landscape in this country.” It led to many federal laws whose aim is to protect native plants from diseases they cannot resist.
Even today, scientists struggle to find a way to fight the blight. Some of them are crossing American chestnuts with Chinese chestnut trees, as they are resistant to the blight, and then backcrossing the hybrids with pure American trees.
Others try to kill the blight by infecting the tree with other viruses, while there are also some who sequence the DNA of the American chestnut and the fungus which is the cause of blight, as a way to make all trees in the wild resistant to blight.
The importance of the chestnut trees is not only emotional, but they represent a distinctive variety, which is a source of wood and provides nuts which were often used in the American cuisine.