History of the American Chestnut Tree
The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, once dominated portions of the eastern U.S. forests. Numbering nearly four billion, the tree was among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing in these forests. Because it could grow so rapidly and attain huge sizes, the American chestnut was often an outstanding feature in both urban and rural landscapes.
Chestnut wood was rot-resistant, straight-grained, and suitable for furniture, fencing, and building materials. In Colonial times, chestnut was preferred for log cabin foundations, fence posts, flooring, and caskets. Later, railroad ties and both telephone and telegraph poles were made from chestnut, many of which are still in use today.
Its nut fed billions, from insects to birds and mammals, and was a significant contributor to rural agricultural economies. Hogs and cattle were fattened for market by silvopasturing them in chestnut-dominated forests. Nut-ripening and gathering nearly coincided with the holiday season, and late 19th century newspapers often featured articles about railroad cars overflowing with chestnuts to be sold fresh or roasted in major cities.
All of this began to change at the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of a deadly blight from Asia. In about 50 years, the pathogen, Cryphonectria parasitica, reduced the American chestnut from its invaluable role to a tree that now grows mostly as an early-successional-stage shrub. There has been no new chestnut lumber sold in the U.S. for decades, and the bulk of the 20-millon pound annual nut crop now comes from introduced European or Asian chestnut species, or from nuts imported from Italy or Turkey.
Despite its demise as a lumber and nut crop species, the American chestnut is not extinct. The blight cannot kill the underground root system as the pathogen is unable to compete with soil microorganisms. Stump sprouts grow vigorously in cutover or disturbed sites where there is plenty of sunlight, but inevitably succumb to the blight. This cycle of death and rebirth has kept the species alive, though considered functionally extinct.