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.
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.
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.
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.
Nut Cold Hardiness as a Factor Influencing the Restoration of American Chestnut in Northern Latitudes and High Elevations
May 01, 2012; Introduction American chestnut (Castanea dentata (Marsh.) Borkh a once dominant tree species in much of eastern North America,...