Return of chestnut heralded

Kai Hagen

July 25, 2003

I am haunted by the ghosts of forests past.

More specifically, and most notably, right here in Frederick County, I am haunted by the ghosts of chestnut trees.

Quite possibly the most important tree in American history, the magnificent chestnut was as close to all things for all people and other creatures as a tree can get in this world. Was. Past tense.

The American chestnut tree was once the dominant tree in a 200 million acre of swath of forest stretching from Maine to Mississippi, and reaching from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes and the Ohio River Valley. Calling it dominant is almost an understatement. As many as one out of every four trees within its range were American chestnuts. At the time, there were more mature American chestnut trees than there were people on earth.

The American chestnuts were not only plentiful, they were often immense. Older trees were typically four or five feet in diameter, some eight or ten feet or more. Many reached one hundred feet above the forest floor, their giant trunks and branches spreading an equal distance. For perspective, picture three or four old chestnut trees shading the full length of a football field at high noon!

Their importance stemmed from more than their abundance and size, however. The American chestnut tree was known as a keystone species, a fundamental part of eastern forest ecosystem. It would be difficult to exaggerate its value and importance.

The chestnut was a very reliable and highly productive tree, unaffected by early and late frosts. It was certainly the most important source of food for forest wildlife, feeding bears, deer, squirrels and dozens of other mammals, as well turkeys, ruffed grouse and other birds. As essential as oaks and acorns are to wildlife, especially without chestnut trees around, oak trees are inconsistent providers. Oaks frequently have mast failures and only produce bumper crops of acorns every few years, when conditions are right. In comparison, chestnuts are more nutritious, and chestnut trees produced more chestnuts, at an earlier age, and much more reliably. Simply put, more chestnut trees equals more wildlife.

But chestnuts were not only valuable to native wildlife, they were also invaluable to native Americans and European settlers. Very high in starch, moderately high in protein, low in fat, and delicious, chestnuts were a source of flour or meal used in making breads and soups. Many struggling families avoided starvation thanks to chestnuts.

Rural communities also relied on the annual harvest as a cash crop to feed livestock. Pigs were raised primarily on chestnuts, and were allowed to feed in the forests. The Hog Rock Nature Trail in Catoctin Mountain Park is named for the practice of bringing hogs up into the mountains to fatten up on chestnuts.

Native Americans and early settlers alike also used chestnut leaves and other parts of the tree for medicines, including cough remedies, heart medicine and more.

As if all that wasn't enough to appreciate the American chestnut, it also provided the wood of choice, and the chestnut lumber industry was a major sector of many rural economies. Besides providing plentiful fuel wood, the once and still highly prized chestnut wood is straight-grained and easily worked, lightweight and rot-resistant. It was ideal for house framing, barns, fences and railroad ties, as well as for fine furniture and musical instruments. For many purposes, nothing else around here comes close.

Like all trees in the eastern United State, of course, most of the old, giant American chestnut trees were cut down. Lamentable as it may be that the people of that era did not preserve a little more than a very few scattered, and generally remote, stands of the original forest, it may not have made a difference for the chestnut.

Even after centuries of logging and clearing, the chestnut remained the dominant tree in its territory. In fact, because of the ability to sprout quickly from stumps and grow faster than other trees, chestnuts appear to have increased in numbers and dominance in areas that had recently been logged or burned.

Sadly though, in the end, this venerable giant succumbed not to the loggers ax, but to a fungus spread by the tiniest of spores.

First discovered in 1904 in New York City, the fungus was imported to the United States on Asian chestnut trees, which were resistant. Our native chestnuts had very little resistance, however, and the lethal blight spread quickly. Within just a few decades, the most important tree in the forest was completely wiped out in what some consider the largest botanical disaster in history.

This tragedy was long enough ago so that most of us have never seen, and have no memory of beautiful, mature chestnut trees. But it was recent enough that some Frederick County residents can remember. And, because the wood is so sturdy and rot-resistant, it was recent enough for me to have marveled at some of the long dead chestnut trees that still stood in the woods of my grandparents' old mountain farm when I was a boy.

Even now, I am reminded daily by the shrubby root sprouts that continue to shoot up from the ground, marking the spots where tall chestnuts stood. I'm reminded when I walk on chestnut floors that look as good as the day they were laid. I'm reminded when I admire an antique chestnut table or set of chairs. I'm reminded when I see a Chestnut Street, or a suburban neighborhood named Chestnut Something-or-other.

But, when I am reminded, I remember that some people of uncommon vision and commitment have worked tirelessly, for decades now, to find a way to return the American chestnut to our American forests. Such people have created The American Chestnut Foundation and other organizations, dedicated to a project that long seemed destined to bear fruit far in the future, if at all.

For years, plant pathologists and others tried to create a blight-resistant tree by crossing our own species with the resistant Chinese chestnut and other chestnut species. In the ultimate example of try, try again, the effort continued after failure followed failure. But now, those failures and advances in the understanding of genetics have shown us where early research went wrong. Suddenly, as it were, the prospect of success seems likely, and soon. Knock on wood.

Twenty-five years ago, I visited Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Because it is so removed from the eastern range and other planted stands of the American chestnut, a small grove of mature chestnuts once planted there has been able to avoid the blight. Having only seen standing skeletons and shrubby shoots and antique furniture, the blooming grove of tall chestnut trees seemed out of a dream.

I won't be around long enough to see tall, blooming chestnut trees reclaiming their place in the forests of Frederick County. But my children may be so fortunate.

So...I'd like to express my most sincere appreciation to the people who didn't forget, who believed it was possible, who didn't give up in the face of years of frustration...and who knew, all along, that even if they succeeded, they would not get to see the big trees back.

Thank you.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at