The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentate) was once considered to be the crowning glory of eastern American forests with soaring heights of up to 200 feet. At one time, the brilliant white flowers of the blossoming American chestnut blanketed the steep ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. It was speculated that one in every four trees from the peaks of Main down into the Southeastern regions of the United States was an American chestnut tree.
During the reign of the American chestnut tree, surrounding communities would harvest the chestnuts which provided nutrients to their families and livestock. American chestnut trees were often felled as lumber for the construction of homes and barns. How could such a large and healthy population of American chestnut trees disappear in a mere 40 years?
To begin with, a tree is a fairly delicate living system comprised of only a few billion living cells clumped around dead inner heartwood. A relatively thin bark protects a tree’s phloem, xylem and cambium – all essential for a functioning tree. Nature has enabled some trees with the ability to increase the production of bitter-tasting tannins that ward off certain predators and diseases. Trees even have the ability to emit chemical signals into the air that alert other trees nearby of an oncoming attack. The notified trees respond by increasing the levels of tannin in their leaves.
The demise of the American chestnut tree began in the 1900’s with the importation of lumber infected with the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica – a foreign disease that left the American chestnut tree defenseless and weak. Over 4 billion trees were eradicated by the infectious chestnut blight.
An effort to reintroduce the American chestnut tree has been in effect since the 1930’s. Scientists have been interested in releasing a genetically modified strain of American chestnut tree into the wild where its populations would stand immune to chestnut blight. The future of the American chestnut tree may be brighter due advances in genetics, but American will never be quite the same as when the mighty chestnut trees stood as sentinels in the quiescent wilderness.