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Geography in the News: Saving the Noble Chestnut

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

The Noble Chestnut’s Hopeful Return

A favorite holiday song lyric composed by Torme and Wells in 1946, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”  (“The Christmas Song”) hearkens to the nostalgic past when chestnuts were plentiful.

More than a century ago, a foreign blight began destroying the American chestnut tree. Once numbering nearly four billion trees along the eastern United States, all mature chestnut trees were dead by 1940. Only a few scattered immature trees survived.  Now researchers are developing a hybrid version of the chestnut with hopes it can survive.

The American chestnut was a fast-growing deciduous hardwood of the beech family. Native to eastern North America, the chestnut grew from 100-150 feet (30-45 m) tall and up to 10 feet (3 m) in diameter. Its natural range was once from Mississippi to Maine and from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains and the Ohio Valley. When Europeans began arriving in the 1600s, an estimated 25 percent of trees in the Appalachians were chestnuts.

gitn_1069_Chestnuts
Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com

Before the chestnut blight decimated the American chestnut, it was one of the most important forest trees throughout its range, serving many purposes for Appalachian families. According to the Washington Post, people used the tree’s nuts to fatten livestock and its wood for fuel, railroad ties, fence posts, furniture and musical instruments. The chestnut lined many streets and roads along the East Coast and throughout Appalachia. It was also an important tree for wildlife, providing vegetative matter for white-tailed deer and wild turkey.

Forester Hermann Merkel first identified the chestnut blight in 1904 on American chestnut trees at the New York Zoological Park. Imported Asiatic chestnut trees accidentally introduced the blight, caused by an Asian bark fungus. Chinese chestnut trees developed a strong resistance to the blight, but the American chestnut was helpless against it. The bark fungus was an airborne disease so prolific that it spread through the region at approximately 50 miles (80 km) a year.

In just a few short decades the blight had killed almost all the American chestnut trees on the East Coast. In the early years of the blight, panic logging likely exacerbated the situation. By cutting the chestnut indiscriminately in an effort to halt the spread of the disease, loggers may have unwittingly destroyed some trees that had a natural resistance to the disease.

The difference between the original American chestnut and the Asiatic chestnut tree is profound. The American chestnut had a single massive trunk, while the Asiatic variety has multiple smaller stems with less valuable wood.

Despite scientists’ early unsuccessful efforts to bring the American chestnut back to the eastern United States, fans of the chestnut have new reasons for hope. There are a number of organizations working to restore the tree, with the most promising work by the American Chestnut Foundation.

The American Chestnut Foundation is developing a chestnut that is strong enough to resist the blight. The organization initially crossed the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut to create a blight-resistant hybrid. Then, scientists “backcrossed” those offspring with other American chestnuts (the “parents”) to produce a tree that is almost 94 percent American chestnut.

The foundation has 300 volunteer-run orchards that are breeding the new chestnut hybrids for planting. According to the Washington Post, the group is cultivating different trees in different states “to bring in the diversity that geography brings to a species.” Furthermore, the organization has helped develop a vacine that can be injected into trees affected by the Asian blight to help combat the fungus.

Volunteers, along with federal officials are beginning the reforestation efforts. So far, they have planted almost 25,000 of the new chestnut seedlings. Some of the most promising land receiving plantings was previously strip-mined for coal.

There are 750,000 to a million acres (303,514 to 404,685 hectares) of abandoned mining land between Pennsylvania and Alabama that was once continuous forest. Patrick Angel, a senior forester at the Office of Surface Mining who is helping with the replanting efforts, says “the natural range of the American chestnut and the Appalachian coal fields overlap perfectly.”

These areas are perfect places to attempt reforestation with the new American chestnut hybrids. Further encouraging those efforts is the fact that under federal law these areas must be reclaimed.

It will take 75 to 100 years to know whether the chestnut tree will truly re-establish in America’s eastern forests. Fans of the American chestnut, however, hope future generations will once again enjoy the many benefits of the noble American chestnut.

And that is Geography in the News.
Sources: GITN 1069 “Return of the Noble Chestnut,” Nov. 26, 2010; and Eilperin, Juliet, “Chestnut tree may make comeback,” The Washington Post (The Bulletin), October 20, 2010

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.