The chestnut tree was once one of the most common trees in the United States. Towns and cities have named streets for trees like the maple, the walnut and the chestnut was no different. Chestnut Hill is the name of prominent neighborhoods in both Philadelphia and Boston. The tree anchored whatever ecosystem they were a part of, providing resources or shelter to animals and humans alike and in nearly the blink of an eye that all changed.
In the early twentieth century a fungal blight decimated chestnut trees all across the nation. The fungus hitched a ride on trees being imported from Japan and it spread quickly and mercilessly. Within 40 years 4 billion chestnut trees were killed and the species was on the brink of extinction. In some forests nearly a third of their trees were destroyed by the blight almost overnight.
But it was more than that, for some a way of life was lost. Chestnut trees were so large that an entire cabin could be built from the wood of one tree. The wood was so light and strong that it was ideal for split rail fences to mark boundaries or to keep animals from roaming. The nuts could keep not only a family fed during winter but could also keep their animals fed. Forest animals also ate the nuts which assured a steady amount of game in the area for hunters who lived off the land. The leaves could be used to treat coughs and soothe burns. Nowhere was the chestnut more valued than Appalachia.
The populace of Appalachia treated the trees as a communal resource and with so many trees in the forest it was no wonder why. It became more important when the railroad came to the area and the wood of the tree and the nut became a valuable commodity that became coveted all across the country. By the beginning of the 20th century the chestnut trade was one of the most important in the nation. Harvest time in early September was a family affair that had to be done quickly before the squirrels could get the nuts and for some families these nuts were used as an alternative currency and was their primary source of income.
The nuts would be shipped to all of the major cities on the east coast, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Richmond and others. They would be roasted on the street and was something every American could enjoy.
Loggers arrived in Appalachia in the late 19th century and set their sights of the large stands of chestnut trees. Other trees wood might be more valuable but no other wood could match the versatility of the chestnut. Thanks to the tannin the wood was lighter, which made it cheaper to ship and it was more resistant to rot and did not warp as easily as other woods. Its durability led to chestnut wood’s use in numerous instances, from utility poles to furniture to railroad ties. The tannin made it ideal in dying silk and tanning leather. By the early 20th century the chestnut was providing 600 million board feet a year and brought $10 million a year to Appalachia (about $270 million today).
That all changed in 1904. A fungus was discovered in the Bronx Zoological Gardens and some experts believed that it had arrived as much as thirty years before. It was believed it had come to the US from Japan in 1876 with Japanese chestnut trees, which were a popular import at the time. The fungus entered through a wound on the tree and killed the cambium, a layer of tissue that provides cells for growth. When a tree is infected a small orange-brown area appears on the tree and a canker spreads. The canker introduces a toxin and girdles the tree thereby killing it.
The blight spread quickly. Chestnut trees died and toppled, leaving many residents of Appalachia heartbroken, not just because of the financial impact but also because these trees were a part of their lives. The blight killed everything. Swaths of forests were destroyed and nothing could grow back to replace the trees. The timing did not help the people as the Great Depression brought economic concerns to the rest of the nation and forced many residents of Appalachia to leave and head to the cities to seek work.
Chestnut trees were still able to grow but the blight would kill them before they could begin producing nuts. Not all chestnut trees were killed though. Some trees outside of the normal habitat survived, such as a 2,500 stand of trees in West Salem, Wisconsin which succumbed to the blight in 1987. A small stand of trees in Warm Springs, Georgia was also found to have survived and still survive to this day.
Scientists and conservationists have been working to combat the blight since it was discovered. At first infected trees were removed but this proved ineffective as the blight spread too fast thanks to spores traveling through the air. Blight was found in China and Japan by 1915 but those trees were found to be more resistant. It was hoped that introducing the Chinese blight to uninfected trees would help develop a resistance but it did not To make things worse the blight was spreading to Europe as well. A study of the DNA allowed scientists to isolate the blight and scientists began work on a hypovirus and introduced it in 1972. It succeeded in controlling the blight but it had to be introduced into the canker of every infected tree. More modern genetic work is being done to make the DNA and RNA resistant to the blight using the DNA of the more resistant Asian chestnut trees. It is hoped that as these new resistant trees are planted and begin pollinating other trees that the blight can be eliminated and the chestnut tree can return to its former glory.