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Saving the American Chestnut tree.

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

I haven't completed the research for my next edition of "Old Mills on Cedar Creek," so this week I'm using the opportunity to talk about another passion of mine, the American Chestnut tree. Back to "Old Mills" in two weeks.

This picture, taken in the mid- to late 19th century, gives an idea of just how large the American chestnut tree was.

Not much more than a century ago nearly four billion American chestnut trees were growing in the eastern U.S. They were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees in our forests. The wood was rot-resistant, straight-grained, and suitable for furniture, fencing, and building. The nuts fed billions of wildlife, people and their livestock. It was almost a perfect tree, that is, until a blight fungus killed it more than a century ago. The chestnut blight has been called the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history.

The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then disappeared within 40 years.

The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) once dominated the eastern half of the U.S. Because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes, the tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes. The wood was used wherever strength and rot-resistance was needed.

In colonial America, chestnut was a preferred species for log cabins, especially the bottom rot-prone foundation logs. Later posts, poles, flooring, and railroad ties were all made from chestnut lumber.

Notice that the natural range of American chestnut trees covered all of Delaware

The edible nut was also a significant contributor to the rural economy. Hogs and cattle were often fattened for market by allowing them to forage in chestnut-dominated forests. Chestnut ripening coincided with the holiday season, and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree.

All of this began to change at or slightly before the turn of the century with the introduction of Cryphonectria parasitica, the causal agent of chestnut blight. This disease reduced the American chestnut from its position as the dominant tree species in the eastern forest ecosystem to little more than an early-succession-stage shrub. There has been essentially no chestnut lumber sold in the U.S. for decades, and the bulk of the annual 20-million-pound nut crop now comes from introduced chestnut species or imported nuts.

Despite its decimation as a lumber and nut-crop species, the American chestnut has not gone extinct. It is considered functionally extinct because the blight fungus does not kill the tree’s root system underground. The American chestnut has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites, but inevitably succumb to the blight and die back to the ground.

Below are links to a pair of videos recently put out by the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture that explain the restoration efforts very well. If the video doesn't open when you click it, just cut and paste the title into your Youtube search bar.

At Abbotts Mill Nature Center we have a number of native American chestnut trees that are still struggling to survive. As the information above states, the airborne blight effects only the part of the tree above the ground, but does not effect the root systems, and they continue to send up new growth. When the trees typically get to about 3 or 4 inches in diameter they succumb to the blight and die off, but the root system survives. One example is just behind the nature center and is marked by a number 21, from our tree guide (more about that later.) More examples can be found along the Lindale trail, in the woods across the road from the nature center parking lot. Most of them are protected from grazing deer by a circle of fencing.

American chestnut tree along the Lindale Loop trail
American chestnut tree along the Blair's Pond trail.

On the way to the Lindale trail you'll pass our small American chestnut grove between the rack of rental kayaks and the band shelter. Look for the three informational signs. These trees were all planted in the past fifteen years or so and are American chestnut and Chinese chestnut hybrids that represent several different strategies. Some of them have already succumbed to the blight, but the hope is that others may thrive.

American chestnut orchard at Abbott's Mill Nature Center

Chestnut blight canker (just above crotch.)

When it became evident in the early to mid-twentieth century that the blight was unstoppable many people planted blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts, but they are a much different species. Rather than growing straight and tall, Chinese chestnuts branch out much like our native wild cherries. The nuts are eatable and a bit larger, but not nearly as sweet as American chestnuts. There was once a good sized Chinese chestnut orchard on the property where Abbott's Mill Nature Center is now, and a number of the gnarly trees can still be seen just across the fence next to the nature center.

large Chinese chestnut tree


Abbott's Mill Nature Center's Tree ID Trail

Have you walked the trails at Abbotts Mill Nature Center and wondered about the different kinds of trees? What kind of trees are they? Well, the short answer is, all kinds. Trees are divided into several different classifications, all of which have exceptions. For instance, trees are classified as either hardwoods or softwoods, but not all hardwoods are hard and not all softwoods are soft. Generally speaking, hardwoods are deciduous meaning they lose their leaves in the winter and softwoods are evergreen and have needles all year. Some exceptions: American Holly is a hardwood that keeps it’s spiny leaves all winter and Bald Cypress is a softwood that loses it’s needles in the winter (hence the name.)

Abbotts Mill Nature Center has a tree ID guide available that will help you identify our trees. You can pick one up from the information rack in our front hallway or just ask for one. Each type of tree has been assigned a number and representative trees along our trails have been marked with that number. Look the number up in the guide and you’ll find the scientific name for the tree, a short description and a picture of the leaves and fruit.

#21 -American chestnut

An example from our Tree ID guide:

#51 - American holly (Ilex opaca)

This broadleaf evergreen typically grows as an understory

tree in moist woods. The red berries on female trees are poisonous to humans but an important survival food for birds. In 1939 American holly was adopted as Delaware's state tree.


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