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American Chestnut

American Chestnut

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The American Chestnut is a large, deciduous
Deciduous means "falling off at maturity" or "tending to fall off", and is typically used in reference to trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally, and to the shedding of other plant structures such as petals after flowering or fruit when ripe...

 tree of the beech family native to eastern North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

. Before the species was devastated by the chestnut blight
Chestnut blight
The pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica is a member of the ascomycota category, and is the main cause of chestnut blight, a devastating disease of the American chestnut tree that caused a mass extinction in the early 1900s of this once plentiful tree from its historic range in the eastern...

, a fungal disease, it was one of the most important forest trees throughout its range. There are now very few mature specimens of the tree within its historical range, although many small sprouts of the former live trees remain. However, there are (at least) hundreds of large (2 to 5 ft diameter) trees outside its historical range, in areas where less virulent (hypovirulent) strains of the pathogen are more common, such as the 600 to 800 large trees in northern lower Michigan
Michigan is a U.S. state located in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. The name Michigan is the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake"....



A rapidly growing deciduous
Deciduous means "falling off at maturity" or "tending to fall off", and is typically used in reference to trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally, and to the shedding of other plant structures such as petals after flowering or fruit when ripe...

 hardwood tree, it reached up to 30–45 meters (100–150 ft) tall and 3 meters (10 ft) in diameter, and ranged from Maine
Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, New Hampshire to the west, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the northwest and New Brunswick to the northeast. Maine is both the northernmost and easternmost...

 and southern
Southern Ontario
Southern Ontario is a region of the province of Ontario, Canada that lies south of the French River and Algonquin Park. Depending on the inclusion of the Parry Sound and Muskoka districts, its surface area would cover between 14 to 15% of the province. It is the southernmost region of...

Ontario is a province of Canada, located in east-central Canada. It is Canada's most populous province and second largest in total area. It is home to the nation's most populous city, Toronto, and the nation's capital, Ottawa....

 to Mississippi
Mississippi is a U.S. state located in the Southern United States. Jackson is the state capital and largest city. The name of the state derives from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary, whose name comes from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi...

, and from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains
Appalachian Mountains
The Appalachian Mountains #Whether the stressed vowel is or ,#Whether the "ch" is pronounced as a fricative or an affricate , and#Whether the final vowel is the monophthong or the diphthong .), often called the Appalachians, are a system of mountains in eastern North America. The Appalachians...

 and the Ohio Valley. There are several related chestnut
Chestnut , some species called chinkapin or chinquapin, is a genus of eight or nine species of deciduous trees and shrubs in the beech family Fagaceae, native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The name also refers to the edible nuts they produce.-Species:The chestnut belongs to the...

 species, such as the European Sweet Chestnut
Sweet Chestnut
Castanea sativa is a species of the flowering plant family Fagaceae, the tree and its edible seeds are referred to by several common names such Sweet Chestnut or Marron. Originally native to southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, it is now widely dispersed throughout Europe and parts of Asia, such as...

, Chinese Chestnut, and Japanese Chestnut
Japanese Chestnut
Japanese Chestnut is a species of chestnut originally native to Japan and South Korea. It is a small to medium-sized deciduous tree growing to 10-15 m tall. The leaves are similar to those of the Sweet Chestnut, though usually a little smaller, 8-19 cm long and 3-5 cm broad...

, which are distinguishable only with difficulty from the American species. C. dentata can be best identified by the larger and more widely spaced saw-teeth on the edges of its leaves, as indicated by the scientific name dentata, Latin for "toothed". The leaves
A leaf is an organ of a vascular plant, as defined in botanical terms, and in particular in plant morphology. Foliage is a mass noun that refers to leaves as a feature of plants....

, which are 14–20 centimeters (5–8 in) long and 7–10 centimeters (3–4 in) broad, also tend to average slightly shorter and broader than those of the Sweet Chestnut. The blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut is now the most commonly planted chestnut species in the U.S. It can be distinguished from the American Chestnut by its hairy twig tips which are in contrast to the hairless twigs of the American Chestnut. The chestnuts are in the beech family along with beech
Beech is a genus of ten species of deciduous trees in the family Fagaceae, native to temperate Europe, Asia and North America.-Habit:...

 and oak
An oak is a tree or shrub in the genus Quercus , of which about 600 species exist. "Oak" may also appear in the names of species in related genera, notably Lithocarpus...

, and are not closely related to the horse-chestnut, which is in the family Sapindaceae
Sapindaceae, also known as the soapberry family, is a family of flowering plants in the order Sapindales. There are about 140-150 genera with 1400-2000 species, including maple, horse chestnut and lychee....


The American Chestnut is a prolific bearer of nuts
Nut (fruit)
A nut is a hard-shelled fruit of some plants having an indehiscent seed. While a wide variety of dried seeds and fruits are called nuts in English, only a certain number of them are considered by biologists to be true nuts...

, usually with three nuts enclosed in each spiny green burr, and lined in tan velvet. The nuts develop through late summer, the burrs opening and falling to the ground near the first fall frost.

The American Chestnut was a very important tree for wildlife, providing much of the fall mast
Mast (botany)
Mast is the "fruit of forest trees like acorns and other nuts". It is also defined as "the fruit of trees such as beech, and other forms of Cupuliferae". Alternatively, it can also refer to "a heap of nuts"....

 for species such as White-tailed Deer
White-tailed Deer
The white-tailed deer , also known as the Virginia deer or simply as the whitetail, is a medium-sized deer native to the United States , Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America as far south as Peru...

 and Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey
The Wild Turkey is native to North America and is the heaviest member of the Galliformes. It is the same species as the domestic turkey, which derives from the South Mexican subspecies of wild turkey .Adult wild turkeys have long reddish-yellow to grayish-green...

 and, formerly, the Passenger Pigeon
Passenger Pigeon
The Passenger Pigeon or Wild Pigeon was a bird, now extinct, that existed in North America and lived in enormous migratory flocks until the early 20th century...

. Black Bears
American black bear
The American black bear is a medium-sized bear native to North America. It is the continent's smallest and most common bear species. Black bears are omnivores, with their diets varying greatly depending on season and location. They typically live in largely forested areas, but do leave forests in...

 were also known to eat the nuts to fatten up for the winter.

Chestnut blight

Once an important hardwood timber tree, the American Chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, caused by an Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica, formerly Endothia parasitica) accidentally introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease was first noticed on American Chestnut trees in what was then the New York Zoological Park, now known as the Bronx Zoo
Bronx Zoo
The Bronx Zoo is located in the Bronx borough of New York City, within Bronx Park. It is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States, comprising of park lands and naturalistic habitats, through which the Bronx River flows....

, in 1904 by chief forester Hermann Merkel. While Chinese Chestnuts evolved with the blight and developed a strong resistance, the airborne bark fungus spread 50 miles (80.5 km) a year and in a few decades girdled and killed up to three billion American Chestnut trees. It is thought that panic logging during the early years of the blight may have unwittingly destroyed trees which had resistance to this disease and thus aggravated the calamity.

New shoots often sprout from the roots when the main stem dies, so the species has not yet become extinct. However, the stump sprouts rarely reach more than 6 metres (20 ft) in height before blight infection returns.

It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut. The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 centimetres (24 in) in diameter within the tree's former range is probably fewer than 100. Huge planted chestnut trees (featured in National Geographic) can be found in Sherwood, Oregon
Sherwood, Oregon
Sherwood is a city in Washington County, Oregon, United States. Located in the southeast corner of the county, it is a residential community in the Tualatin Valley southwest of Portland. The population was 11,791 at the 2000 census. The 2006 estimate is 16,115 residents...

, since much of western North America is still free of blight. American Chestnut thrives as far north as Revelstoke
Revelstoke, British Columbia
Revelstoke is a city in southeastern British Columbia, Canada. It is located east of Vancouver, and west of Calgary, Alberta. The city is situated on the banks of the Columbia River just south of the Revelstoke Dam and near its confluence with the Illecillewaet River...

, British Columbia
British Columbia
British Columbia is the westernmost of Canada's provinces and is known for its natural beauty, as reflected in its Latin motto, Splendor sine occasu . Its name was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1858...

. Though the tree is understandably incredibly rare east of the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

 in modern times, it exists in pockets of the blight-free West, where the habitat was agreeable for planting: settlers brought seeds for American chestnut with them in the 19th century and it is in part because of this fact that the species still exists at all.

Several organizations are attempting to breed blight-resistant chestnut trees. One of these is the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation
American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation
The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to re-establishing the American chestnut, Castanea dentata, as a viable species using only pure American chestnut genetic stock. They differ from the American Chestnut Foundation, which is seeking to re-establish the species...

, which breeds surviving all-American chestnuts, which have shown some native resistance to blight. The Canadian Chestnut Council is an organization attempting to reintroduce the trees in Canada, primarily in Ontario
Ontario is a province of Canada, located in east-central Canada. It is Canada's most populous province and second largest in total area. It is home to the nation's most populous city, Toronto, and the nation's capital, Ottawa....

. Another is The American Chestnut Foundation
The American Chestnut Foundation
The American Chestnut Foundation is a nonprofit American organization dedicated to breeding a blight-resistant American chestnut tree and the reintroduction of this tree to the forests of the Eastern United States....

, which is backcrossing
Backcrossing is a crossing of a hybrid with one of its parents or an individual genetically similar to its parent, in order to achieve offspring with a genetic identity which is closer to that of the parent...

 blight-resistant American Chestnut × Chinese Chestnut hybrids to American parents, to recover the American growth characteristics and genetic makeup, and then finally intercrossing the advanced generations in order to breed consistently for blight resistance. The goal is eventually to reintroduce the species to the eastern forests of North America. In 2005, a hybrid tree with mostly American genes was planted on the lawn of the White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...

; as of November 2007 reports indicate that this 75% American Chestnut tree is not doing well.

The United States National Arboretum
United States National Arboretum
The United States National Arboretum is an arboretum in Washington, D.C., operated by the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service as a division of the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center...

 also has taken an interest in the American Chestnut, using similar methods of backcrossing to create hybrids resistant to blight.
Overall, it is anticipated that the species may be ready for trial plantings in forests by 2010.

A breakthrough in cross-breeding of American chestnut DNA and Chinese chestnut DNA has allowed to begin restoration of the American chestnut tree. A tree planted in 2005 in the tree library outside of the USDA building is still very healthy 7 years later containing 98% American chestnut DNA and 2% Chinese chestnut DNA. This tree has just enough Chinese chestnut DNA to resist the blight which is an exciting finding essential for restoring the American chestnut trees into the Northeast.

Surviving specimens

  • Two of the largest surviving American Chestnut trees are in Jackson County, Tennessee. One is the state champion and has a diameter of 61 centimetres (24 in) and a height of 23 metres (75 ft), and the other tree is nearly as large. One of them has been pollinated with hybrid pollen by members of The American Chestnut Foundation
    The American Chestnut Foundation
    The American Chestnut Foundation is a nonprofit American organization dedicated to breeding a blight-resistant American chestnut tree and the reintroduction of this tree to the forests of the Eastern United States....

    ; the progeny will have mostly American Chestnut genes and some will be blight resistant.
  • On 18 May 2006, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources
    Georgia Department of Natural Resources
    The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is an administrative agency of the U.S. state of Georgia. The agency has statewide responsibilities for managing and conserving Georgia’s natural, cultural, and historical resources, and is divided into six divisions:...

     spotted a stand of several trees near Warm Springs
    Warm Springs, Georgia
    Warm Springs is a city in Meriwether County, Georgia, United States. The population was 478 at the 2010 census.-History:Warm Springs first came to prominence in the 19th century as a spa town, due to its mineral springs which flow constantly at nearly 32 °C...

    , Georgia
    Georgia (U.S. state)
    Georgia is a state located in the southeastern United States. It was established in 1732, the last of the original Thirteen Colonies. The state is named after King George II of Great Britain. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the United States Constitution, on January 2, 1788...

    . One of the trees is approximately 20–30 years old and 13 metres (43 ft) tall and is the southernmost American Chestnut tree known to be flowering and producing nuts.
  • Another large tree was found in Talladega National Forest
    Talladega National Forest
    The Talladega National Forest is located in the U.S. state of Alabama and covers 392,567 acres at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains....

    , Alabama
    Alabama is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama ranks 30th in total land area and ranks second in the size of its inland...

     in June 2005. It is 26 metres (85 ft) tall with a diameter of 35 centimetres (14 in).
  • In the summer of 2007, a stand of trees was discovered near the northeastern Ohio
    Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...

     town of Braceville. The stand encompasses four large flowering trees, the largest of which is approximately 23 metres (75 ft) tall, sited amongst hundreds of smaller trees that have not begun to flower, located in and around a sandstone quarry. A combination of factors may account for the survival of these relatively large American Chestnut trees, including low levels of blight susceptibility, hypovirulence, and good site conditions. In particular, some stands may have avoided exposure thanks to trees being located at a higher altitude than blighted trees in the neighboring area, the fungal spores not carrying to higher altitudes as easily.
  • In March 2008, officials of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources
    Ohio Department of Natural Resources
    The Ohio Department of Natural Resources was created in 1949 by the Ohio Legislature. It is a government agency in the U.S. state of Ohio charged with maintaining natural resources such as state parks, public lands, state forests, state waterways, and recreation areas.Divisions of ODNR...

     announced that a rare adult American Chestnut tree had been discovered in a marsh near Lake Erie
    Lake Erie
    Lake Erie is the fourth largest lake of the five Great Lakes in North America, and the tenth largest globally. It is the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest by volume of the Great Lakes and therefore also has the shortest average water residence time. It is bounded on the north by the...

    . The officials admitted that they had known about the tree for seven years, but had kept its existence a secret. The exact location of the tree is still being held secret, both because of the risk of infecting the tree and because an eagle has nested in its branches. They described the tree as being 89 feet (27.1 m) tall and having a circumference of 5 feet (1.5 m). The American Chestnut Foundation was also only recently told about the tree's existence.
  • Several years ago, a fully matured aged tree of around 50 feet was discovered in West Branch, Iowa. This was one of the westernmost American Chestnuts. However, the tree was destroyed to make way for a Procter & Gamble parking lot.
  • An 80-year-old, 50 feet (15.2 m) tree was discovered in Adair County, Kentucky
    Adair County, Kentucky
    Adair County is a county located in the U.S. state of Kentucky. As of 2010, the population is 18,656. Its county seat is Columbia, Kentucky. The county is named for John Adair, then Speaker of the House in Kentucky and later Governor of Kentucky ....

    , in 1999.
  • In June 2009, a mature American Chestnut was discovered in Farmington, New Hampshire
    Farmington, New Hampshire
    Farmington is a town located in Strafford County, New Hampshire, USA. The 2010 census reported that the town had a total population of 6,786. Farmington is home to Blue Job State Forest....

  • In rural Missaukee County, Michigan
    Missaukee County, Michigan
    -Demographics:As of the census of 2000, there were 14,478 people, 5,450 households, and 4,043 families residing in the county. The population density was 26 people per square mile . There were 8,621 housing units at an average density of 15 per square mile...

    , a blight-free grove of American Chestnut trees approximately 0.33 acre (0.13354638 ha) in size with the largest tree measuring 128 inches (325.1 cm) in circumference (40 inches (101.6 cm) diameter) has been located. It is believed to be the result of nuts planted by early settlers in the area. The American Chestnut Council, located in the local town of Cadillac, Michigan
    Cadillac, Michigan
    Cadillac is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan and is the county seat of Wexford County. As of the 2000 census, the city population was 10,000. The city is situated at the junction of US 131, M-55 and M-115...

    , has verified the identity and existence. Efforts have been initiated to protect the property from logging and development.
  • Hundreds of healthy American Chestnuts have been found in the proposed Chestnut Ridge Wilderness Area in the Allegheny National Forest
    Allegheny National Forest
    The Allegheny National Forest is a National Forest located in northwestern Pennsylvania. The forest covers of land. Within the forest is Kinzua Dam, which impounds the Allegheny River to form Allegheny Reservoir. The administrative headquarters for the Allegheny National Forest is located in Warren...

     in northwestern Pennsylvania. Many of these trees are quite large, measuring more than 60 feet (18.3 m) in height. These trees will be protected from logging if the wilderness area, proposed by Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, is passed into law.


The nuts were once an important economic resource in the U.S., being sold on the streets of towns and cities, as they sometimes still are during the Christmas season (usually "roasting on an open fire"
The Christmas Song
"The Christmas Song" is a classic Christmas song written in 1944 by musician, composer, and vocalist Mel Tormé and Bob Wells. According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer...

 so their smell is readily identifiable many blocks away). Chestnuts are edible raw or roasted, though typically preferably roasted. Nuts of the European Sweet Chestnut
Sweet Chestnut
Castanea sativa is a species of the flowering plant family Fagaceae, the tree and its edible seeds are referred to by several common names such Sweet Chestnut or Marron. Originally native to southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, it is now widely dispersed throughout Europe and parts of Asia, such as...

 are now sold instead in many stores. One must peel the brown skin to access the yellowish-white edible portion. The unrelated horse-chestnut's
Horse chestnut may refer to:*Horse-chestnut or Aesculus hippocastanum, a species of large deciduous tree**Horse chestnuts, Eurasian species of the genus Aesculus*Horse Chestnut , a South African Thoroughbred racehorse...

Conkers is a traditional English children's game played using the seeds of horse-chestnut trees – the name 'conker' is also applied to the seed and to the tree itself...

s" are poisonous without extensive preparation.

The wood
Wood is a hard, fibrous tissue found in many trees. It has been used for hundreds of thousands of years for both fuel and as a construction material. It is an organic material, a natural composite of cellulose fibers embedded in a matrix of lignin which resists compression...

 is straight-grained, strong, and easy to saw and split, and it lacks the radial end grain found on most other hardwoods. The tree was particularly valuable commercially since it grew at a faster rate than oaks. Being rich in tannin
A tannin is an astringent, bitter plant polyphenolic compound that binds to and precipitates proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids.The term tannin refers to the use of...

s, the wood was highly resistant to decay and therefore used for a variety of purposes, including furniture, split-rail fence
Split-rail fence
A split-rail fence or log fence is a type of fence constructed out of timber logs, usually split lengthwise into rails and typically used for agricultural or decorative fencing. Such fences require much more timber than other types of fences, and so are generally only common in areas where wood is...

s, shingles, home construction, flooring, piers, plywood, paper pulp, and telephone poles. Tannins were also extracted from the bark
Bark is the outermost layers of stems and roots of woody plants. Plants with bark include trees, woody vines and shrubs. Bark refers to all the tissues outside of the vascular cambium and is a nontechnical term. It overlays the wood and consists of the inner bark and the outer bark. The inner...

 for tanning leather. Although larger trees are no longer available for milling, much chestnut wood has been reclaimed from historic barns to be refashioned into furniture and other items. "Wormy" chestnut refers to a defective grade of wood that has insect
Insects are a class of living creatures within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body , three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae...

 damage, having been sawn from long-dead blight-killed trees. This "wormy" wood has since become fashionable for its rustic character.

This tree is not considered a particularly good patio shade tree because its droppings are prolific and a considerable nuisance. Catkin
A catkin or ament is a slim, cylindrical flower cluster, with inconspicuous or no petals, usually wind-pollinated but sometimes insect pollinated . They contain many, usually unisexual flowers, arranged closely along a central stem which is often drooping...

s in the spring, spiny nut pods in the fall, and leaves in the early winter can all be a problem. These characteristics are more or less common to all shade trees, but perhaps not to the same degree as with the chestnut. The spiny seed pods are a particular nuisance when scattered over an area frequented by people.

Montreal is a city in Canada. It is the largest city in the province of Quebec, the second-largest city in Canada and the seventh largest in North America...

, Quebec
Quebec or is a province in east-central Canada. It is the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population and the only one whose sole official language is French at the provincial level....

, is famous for its abundance of chestnuts in the downtown core during the autumn months. One may find a festival of ripened harvested chestnuts along rue Sherbrooke. Native Montréalers dub it the Le Festival De La Châtaigne, which generally occurs during the last week of September.

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