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A Tribute To The American Chestnut Tree

Learn About Wood Series, Part 4

American Chestnut Examples
American Chestnut Examples

A poignant reminder
about the loss of a majestic beauty,
written by By Robert King.

Originally published in Wood News Issue 4,
August 1978.

A Tribute To The American Chestnut Tree  

Chestnuts (Castanea Dentata) once made up a significant percentage of our Southern and Eastern hardwood forest. Ranging from Maine to Mississippi and South to middle Georgia, they were highly regarded, both commercially and aesthetically. Henry David Thoreau wrote fondly of hiking all day and the chestnut forest with nothing but a knapsack and a stick to open the burrs. The sweet nuts were a principal source of food for a variety of wildlife including bear, grouse and quail, squirrels, deer and wild turkey. Chestnut bark once supplied about 90% of the tannin used in the leather industry. The wood, which like black walnut (Juglans Nigra) last well in contact with soil, was favored for use in caskets, fence post and mine timbers. Having an attractive grain pattern and taking finishes readily, it was also valuable material in the furniture industry. The annual production in 1928 was 259,769,000 board feet and the timber stand was estimated at 19,300,000,000 board feet in 1925.

In 1904 however, Herman W. Merkel, chief forester of the New York Zoological Park, had noticed several chestnut trees suffering from a similar blight. Despite his best efforts at spraying and pruning, every chestnut tree in the park was soon dead. Diaporthe Parasitica had come to America.

By 1911, the fungus had killed every chestnut in the state of New York and was alarmingly well established in neighboring states. Cankers in sick trees released millions of spores that were transported through the air to healthy trees. A national heritage was being destroyed, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The blight reached Georgia in 1925, and by 1930, 80% of all chestnut trees in the Southern Appalachians war blighted and dying. The loss of our chestnut woodlands was staggering. One out of every 4 trees in the Appalachian range was once an American Chestnut. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service estimated that the total number of chestnut trees lost would equal more than 9 million acres of pure chestnut woodland.

The blight was brought to our shores (before the advent of plant quarantine laws) on imported oriental chestnut trees whose nuts, though not as sweet, are larger, and whose wood has no commercial value. The oriental blight varieties are highly blight resistant, while the American Chestnut, obviously, had no resistance at all.

And yet, Castanea Dentata lives today, though in much reduced circumstances. Sprouts and seedlings continued to grow, but by the time they reach a few inches diameter, they fall victim to the blight, which is able to live half heartedly -- but well enough-- on other trees as well.

For my Granny King, chestnuts recall memories of the "mountain men" who came through Fair Play, South Carolina each fall in mule or ox drawn wagons selling chestnuts, apples, cabbages and homemade whiskey.

The fungus that destroyed the chestnuts entered neither the hardwood or the sapwood. It resided instead in a thin layer of inner bark whose deterioration left the trees to die for lack of the water these lair transported. Chestnuts last well in contact with the soil, and some stark skeletons are still standing after more than 40 years, in North Georgia mountains.

The fallen ones, Leon Colwell explain to me one afternoon, were an easy target for wood-boring worms. After riddling the wood however, the warms moved on or died, leaving the bulk of the wood sound. Wormy Chestnut. Rich Brown in color, handsomely grained, randomly sculpted with the holes. It is now prized for cabinet work and interior trim.

Longfellow's poem "The Village Blacksmith" ("Under a spreading trust chestnut tree/the village smithie stands") has done much to keep at least the name chestnut in the minds of Americans, even though the tree in which the poem refers was in fact not an American native at all, but an English Horse Chestnut, Aesculus Hippocastanum (see "On the Trail of the Spreading Chestnut Tree", Edward M. Littlefield, American Forest, March, 1976, page 18 to 20). Nevertheless Albert Constantine unblushingly introduced the chestnut article for a 1959 edition of his book Know Your Wood with an incorrect quote of the poem ("Under a spreading chestnut tree the village blacksmith stood"), thus getting wrong both the wood and the work, the tree and the poetry.

How does it feel to wander among chestnuts green with spring leaves or to harvest the sweet nuts in early fall? You may be able to find out, to refresh old memories if there were chestnuts in your childhood. As late as 1957, a grove of 37 chestnuts, isolated and untouched by the light by the blight, thrived near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, on the farm of Einar Lunde.

Explore more of Highland Woodworking's early years in Retro Woodworking our archived collection of woodworking articles, woodworking tips and woodworking nostalgia:

Learn About Wood, Part 1 General information about wood and wood terminology
Learn About Wood, Part 2 Learn About Wood Characteristics
Learn About Wood, Part 3 Black Walnut Tree
Learn About Wood, Part 5 Predicting Wood Shrinkage

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