The American Chestnut

Left picture: American Chestnut branch in flower

Right picture:  Chinese chestnut tree in flower at south end of my orchard – apple tree in foreground


Jimmy Carter remembers one chestnut tree still standing on the farm when he was growing up, but no one still alive remembers what the eastern forests looked like before the chestnut blight.  One writer recalled that he could stand on a high ridge looking down at a chestnut forest in bloom and it “looked like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface.”  Henry Ward Beecher wrote that “the whole top of the tree was silvered over” when it blossomed.

When the blight came, life changed up and down the eastern states.  The chestnut was the dominant tree in the eastern forest and whole communities depended on it for life.  The nuts sustained wild life for hunting and were gathered to sell and so buy clothes and shoes; the wood was for fences and houses; the bark and the wood were a prime source of tannin for the tanning of leather and dying of silk.

Beginning at the end of the 19th century, the blight spread through the forest and in fifty years hardly a tree was left.  The forests were now dominated by maple and oak and hickory and ash which produced far less to eat for man or beast, far less nectar for the bees.  The trees died and fell but the wood is very resistant to rot and the woods are still full of the fallen branches and trunks.

The roots. however, do not die easily.  They continue to send up shoots and sometimes the saplings grow tall enough to flower and even bear nuts before the blight finds them and they die.  I’ve often seen the thin chestnut saplings in the woods but never saw one in blossom until last Sunday.  On the way home from church, I realized that the branch hanging over the road in a patch of woodland and covered with blossoms was a chestnut.  I went back the next day for pictures. I’m sending the pictures and description to an agent of the American Chestnut Foundation that is dedicated to restoring the trees through an elaborate cross-breeding program aimed at producing a blight resistant tree. The sapling is fourteen inches in circumference and the top branches are already dead.  It may produce a few nuts this year but it won’t last long.

Meanwhile, there are Chinese variants of the chestnut that are blight resistant and I have planted several.  One is now well over twenty years old and in a good year has been known to produce several quarts of nuts.  I have high hopes for a better harvest when the smaller trees I have planted attain some size. Go to for more pictures and information.  Members of the ACF can even buy nuts and saplings to help the foundations program.

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