The native range of American chestnut (Castanea dentata) stretches from Massachusetts to central Mississippi and as far west as Indiana. When Europeans arrived in North America, 25 percent of all trees in the Eastern forests were American chestnut. They commonly stood over 100 feet tall and as much as seven feet in diameter. Chestnut was truly the “Eastern Giant.”
American chestnut never exceeded one percent of the nation’s total hardwood lumber output, but it made up a full 25 percent of lumber sales for the Appalachian region. When cut, the stump would sprout new stems that grew so fast they would quickly overtop red oak, white oak and hickory, reducing the other species to poorly formed understory trees.
Tragedy struck in 1904: a blight was noticed around the area of the Bronx Zoo. It had been brought over on Chinese chestnut trees planted at the zoo as ornamentals. American chestnut had no natural resistance to the blight. Chestnut forests began to die en masse. G. F. Gravatt, of the U.S.D.A., in a report to the Society of American Foresters in 1923, stated that in 1913 the infection had not yet reached Virginia. By 1923, all chestnut trees in Virginia had died, and the blight engulfed North Carolina. He proved prophetic in proclaiming, “There is no reason to expect that anything will prevent the death of the remaining chestnut stands.” By 1950, 3.5 billion American chestnut stood dead in the eastern United States.
The durability of American chestnut wood allowed for the continued harvest of the dead trees for 20 years after their demise. “Wormy” chestnut became fashionable in paneling and picture frames. To this day, tobacco barns, hay barns, outbuildings, fences and abandoned cabins built of chestnut still stand. Scattered trees of planted American chestnut remain on the Pacific coast and other areas the blight has not yet invaded, but it has been extirpated from its native range.
But there is still hope. The blight only killed the above-ground growth of the American chestnut. Stumps and root stocks of trees killed over 100 years ago still sprout, grow to 6″ to 14″ in diameter, and die back. The persistence of this rootstock is allowing scientists to intensively study ways to breed blight resistance into the tree. You may help that effort by supporting the American Chestnut Foundation.