The American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a large, deciduous tree of the oak family native to eastern North America. Before the species was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease, it was one of the most important forest trees throughout its range. There are now few if any mature specimens of the tree, except where it was planted in blight-free regions distant from its original range.
A rapidly growing deciduous
hardwood tree, it reached up to 30–45 meters (100–150 ft) tall and 3 meters (10 ft) in diameter, and ranged from Maine
and southern Ontario
, and from the Atlantic
coast to the Appalachian Mountains
and the Ohio Valley
. There are several related chestnut
species such as the European Sweet Chestnut
, Chinese Chestnut
and Japanese Chestnut
, which are distinguishable only with difficulty from the American species. C. dentata
can be best identified by the larger and more widely spaced saw-teeth on the edges of its leaves, as indicated by the scientific name dentata
, Latin for "toothed". The leaves
, which are 14–20 centimeters (5–8 in) long and 7–10 centimeters (3–4 in) broad, also tend to average slightly shorter and broader than those of the Sweet Chestnut. The blight resistant Chinese Chestnut is now the most commonly planted chestnut species in the U.S. It can be distinguished from the American Chestnut by its hairy twig tips which are in contrast to the hairless twigs of the American Chestnut. The chestnuts are in the beech family along with beech
, and are not closely related to the horse-chestnut, which is in the family Sapindaceae
The American Chestnut is a prolific bearer of nuts, usually with three nuts enclosed in each spiny green burr, and lined in tan velvet. The nuts develop through late summer, the burrs opening and falling to the ground near the first fall frost.
The American Chestnut was a very important tree for wildlife, providing much of the fall mast for species such as White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkey and, formerly, the Passenger Pigeon. Black Bears were also known to eat the nuts to fatten up for the winter.
Once an important hardwood timber tree, the American Chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, caused by an Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica
, formerly Endothia parasitica
) accidentally introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease was first noticed on American Chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo
in 1904. While Chinese Chestnuts evolved with the blight and developed a strong resistance, the airborne bark fungus spread 50 miles a year and in a few decades girdled and killed up to three billion American Chestnut trees. It is thought that panic logging during the early years of the blight may have unwittingly destroyed trees which had resistance to this disease and thus aggravated the calamity..
New shoots often sprout from the roots when the main stem dies, so the species has not yet become extinct. However, the stump sprouts rarely reach more than 6 meters (20 ft) in height before blight infection returns.
It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut. The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 cm (24 inches) in diameter within the tree's former range is probably fewer than 100. Huge planted chestnut trees (featured in National Geographic) can be found in Sherwood, Oregon, since much of western North America is still free of blight. American Chestnut thrives as far north as Revelstoke, British Columbia.
Several organizations are attempting to breed blight-resistant chestnut trees. One of these is the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation, which breeds surviving all-American chestnuts, which have shown some native resistance to blight. The Canadian Chestnut Council is an organization attempting to reintroduce the trees in Canada, primarily in Ontario. Another is The American Chestnut Foundation, which is backcrossing blight-resistant American Chestnut × Chinese Chestnut hybrids to American parents, to recover the American growth characteristics and genetic makeup, and then finally intercrossing the advanced generations in order to breed consistently for blight resistance. The goal is eventually to reintroduce the species to the eastern forests of North America. In 2005, a hybrid tree with mostly American genes was planted on the lawn of the White House, and to date is doing very well.
The United States National Arboretum also has taken an interest in the American Chestnut, using similar methods of backcrossing to create hybrids resistant to blight.
Overall, it is anticipated that the species may be ready for trial plantings in forests by 2010.
- Two of the largest surviving American Chestnut trees are in Jackson County, Tennessee. One is the state champion and has a diameter of 61 cm (24 in) and a height of 23 meters (75 ft) and the other tree is nearly as large. One of them has been pollinated with hybrid pollen by members of The American Chestnut Foundation; the progeny will have mostly American Chestnut genes and some will be blight resistant.
- On 18 May 2006, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources spotted a stand of several trees near Warm Springs, Georgia. One of the trees is approximately 20–30 years old and 13 meters (40 ft) tall and is the southernmost American Chestnut tree known to be flowering and producing nuts.
- Another large tree was found in Talladega National Forest, Alabama in June 2005. It is 26 meters (85 ft) tall with a diameter of 35 centimeters (14 in).
- In the summer of 2007, a stand of trees was discovered near the northeastern Ohio town of Braceville. The stand encompasses four large flowering trees, the largest of which is approximately 23 meters (75 ft) tall, sited amongst hundreds of smaller trees that have not begun to flower, located in and around a sandstone quarry. A combination of factors may account for the survival of these relatively large American Chestnut trees, including low levels of blight susceptibility, hypovirulence (the attacking blight fungus is weakened by a virus), and good site conditions. In particular, some stands may have avoided exposure thanks to trees being located at a higher altitude than blighted trees in the neighboring area, the fungal spores not carrying to higher altitudes as easily.
- In March 2008, officials of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced that a rare adult American Chestnut tree had been discovered in a marsh near Lake Erie. The officials admitted that they had known about the tree for seven years, but had kept its existence a secret. The exact location of the tree is still being held secret, both because of the risk of infecting the tree and because an eagle has nested in its branches. They described the tree as being 89 feet (27m) tall and having a circumference of 5 feet (1.5m). The American Chestnut Foundation was also only recently told about the tree's existence.
- Another large tree was discovered in Columbia, Kentucky.
The nuts were once an important economic resource in the U.S., being sold on the streets of towns and cities, as they sometimes still are during the Christmas season (usually "roasting on an open fire"
so their smell is readily identifiable many blocks away). Chestnuts are edible raw or roasted, though preferably roasted. Nuts of the European Sweet Chestnut
are now sold instead in many stores. One must peel the brown skin to access the yellowish-white edible portion. The unrelated horse-chestnut's
" are poisonous without extensive preparation.
The wood is straight-grained, strong, and easy to saw and split, and it lacks the radial end grain found on most other hardwoods. The tree was particularly valuable commercially since it grew at a faster rate than oaks. Being rich in tannins, the wood was highly resistant to decay and therefore used for a variety of purposes, including furniture, split-rail fences, shingles, home construction, flooring, piers, plywood, paperpulp, and telephone poles. Tannins were also extracted from the bark for tanning leather. Although larger trees are no longer available for milling, much chestnut wood has been reclaimed from historic barns to be refashioned into furniture and other items. "Wormy" chestnut refers to a defective grade of wood that has insect damage, having been sawn from long-dead blight-killed trees. This "wormy" wood has since become fashionable for its rustic character.
This tree is not a good patio shade tree, because its droppings are prolific and a considerable nuisance. Catkins in the Spring, spiny nut pods in the Fall and leaves in the early Winter are all a problem, which, while shared to some extent by all good shade trees, are worse than most. Spiny seed pods are as sharp as anything created by nature and are therefore dangerous to barefooted children.
Montréal, Québec is famous for its abundance of chestnuts in the downtown core during the Autumn months. You will find, while walking down rue Sherbrooke a hotspot festival of ripened harvested chestnuts. Native Montréalers dub it the Le Festival Du Châtaigne. This generally falls on the last week of September.