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American Chestnut History

History and Growth

The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once one of the most common and important tree species in the Eastern United States. It could be found from Northern Florida to Southern Maine, and west into Tennessee and Ohio. One of the reasons that the American chestnut was so common was that it could out-compete most other forest trees for the available resources needed for tree growth. These trees got absolutely huge! They often had a diameter of more than 10 feet and grew to heights of well over 100 feet

 
Some very large American chestnut trees from the late 1800's. Picture courtesey of the Forest History Society, Inc.
Historical range map of the American chestnut.
Photo of two chestnuts.

Uses for the American Chestnut

The American chestnut tree was extremely useful to those who lived in its range. The wood from the tree was fairly light but strong and was fairly easy to work with. Chestnut wood was used to make furniture, shingles, siding, telephone poles, and fence posts . It was an extremely good wood for use outdoors due to the large amount of tannic acid in the wood that kept it from rotting for a long time. The chestnuts themselves were also a very important food source for people as well as livestock and wildlife. The nuts were often gathered by the wagonload as they ripened and fell off the trees in the fall. Some of the chestnuts were then used to supplement food stores in the fall and winter. Often the chestnuts were taken into towns by the wagonload and then shipped by train to major markets in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

The Catastrophic End of the American Chestnut as a Major Forest Species

In 1904, a most unfortunate "thing" was imported into the United States. This "thing" was the Chestnut blight fungus, or Cryphonectria parasitica. The fungus came into the country on some Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees that were being imported to the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City. The blight then quickly spread to some American chestnut trees in the park through the air and throughout the entire range of the chestnut by the 1940's. The American chestnut trees, which evolved without the presence of the blight, are not resistant to the fungus and are quickly killed off by it. The blight enters the chestnut tree through cracks in the bark, which usually appear once a tree is a few years old. Once under the bark, the fungus then "eats" away the vascular cambium and phloem of the tree leaving a girdling, sunken canker. This canker prevents the tree from transporting the food it makes in its leaves through photosynthesis. Without this food, the tree then dies within a decade or so. However, the root systems are not affected by the blight and often sprout to form new chestnut trees. Once the sprouts are a few years old though, they once again become infected with the blight and die back again.

 

Picture of blight damaged American chestnut trees in the 1950's. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway photo archives
 
Picture of Cryphonectria parasitica (chestnut blight fungus) on a young American chestnut tree.

The Effects of The Disapperance of the American Chestnut upon Eastern Forest Biodiversity

Biodiversity, or the diversity of living things, changed drastically in some Eastern U.S. forests after the chestnut blight. The blight had a major effect on the composition, or types of trees, that were found. This was mainly due to the fact that the American chestnut was such a dominant tree in many of the Eastern forests and it often did not give less competitve tree species the opportunity to grow to maturity. The chestnut would out-compete most other tree species for available resources such as light, water, and nutrients in the soil. When the chestnut disappeared, it gave some of the slower growing species a chance to compete for the needed rsources. For more information about the American chestnut and biodiversity check out this study from Mountain Lake, Virginia.


 
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