March 12, 2020

American Chestnut: From Dominant to Near Extinct

It’s not big news that the Smoky Mountain area of today is much different than it was in the 1800s. Much has changed, but an overwhelming factor of that was the decline of the American Chestnut tree. Once, the region was ruled by the mighty Chestnut, which grew up to almost 100 feet tall, towering over most of the other trees around. 

When it comes to building materials, it’s hard to beat the American Chestnut. They grow incredibly fast, especially for such a large tree. The wood is naturally rot-resistant, and incredibly hard. It also grows straighter than many other trees, making it easier to use for larger builds like houses and barns.

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This house was built from Chestnut shortly before the population was decimated. Galen Parks Smith / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The American Chestnut tree wasn’t just a high-quality building material, however. It played a crucial role in everyday life. Each tree grew several pounds of chestnuts, starting at only 7 or 8 years old. With around 4 billion trees spanning most of the eastern United States, there were plenty of nuts to go around. The nuts that fell were an important food source for animals and people alike. They could also be gathered and traded for other staples, like shoes or clothes. In fact, they were such an integral part of life that roasting chestnuts became synonymous with the holiday season. 

The_tree_book_-_A_popular_guide_to_a_knowledge_of_the_trees_of_North_America_and_to_their_uses_and_cultivation_(1920)_(14596265079)

A picture of a Chestnut tree from a book published in 1920 about North American trees.

Then, in the 1900s, everything changed. The Chestnut blight, a fungus; Cryphonectria parasitica, made its way to North America through trees imported from Japan. The blight damages the inner bark and trunk of the trees, leaving them unable to repair themselves and recover. Since it doesn’t damage the roots, sometimes new shoots will grow from them, but they rarely get to 20 feet tall before being struck by the blight and dying again. 

As fungi are known to do, the blight spread like wildfire, attacking the giant trees. While Chinese Chestnut trees had built up an immunity to the blight, the American Chestnut was defenseless. In a matter of years, an estimated 4 billion trees were decimated by the fungus, completely changing the landscape and economy of the Smoky Mountain area. 

All hope is not completely gone, though. In remote areas where the American Chestnut tree was not originally dominant, like Michigan, there are trees that grow free of the blight. American Chestnut trees are no longer dominant in Eastern North America, but they’re not completely extinct, either. It’s possible they’ll even make a comeback.

 

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