In the warm summer months, the mountains of Appalachia used to look like they were blanketed with snow when the magnificent American chestnut trees cloaked themselves with white blossoms. The flowers in turn produced the tasty fruits that are so associated with the Christmas season that it’s hard to think of chestnuts without wanting to roast them over an open fire.
But that was long ago, before a botanical plague moved across the eastern United States, wiping out chestnut trees more efficiently than the fiercest wild fire.
Where great forests once stood, today there are just stumps with scraggly chestnut bushes growing out of them, and the mighty tree has been laid low.
But now, working on several fronts, scientists hope to bring the American chestnut back, restoring it to the glory that it once commanded across so many hillsides from Maine to Florida. In time, says Sandra L. Anagnostakis of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, chestnut trees should once again tower above the forest canopy. That should be possible, she adds, because of advancements in the field of genetics, and a bit of good luck.
It is hard to imagine just how grand those old forests were. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, which is leading the charge to restore the chestnut, mature trees were indeed awesome, towering as much as 100 feet above the ground, with trunks measuring as much as 10 feet in diameter.
No wonder they became known as the redwoods of the East.
But the end of the chestnut came quickly. In 1904, a bark disease was detected in trees in the New York City area. It turned out that the disease was caused by a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, that arrived in this country with a chestnut tree imported from Asia.
The manner in which the fungus spread was particularly insidious. Wildlife ranging from bears to squirrels ate the nuts, but as they scurried about the forest they spread the fungus, which even infected the soil. The fungus is as healthy today as it was decades ago.
Even a light rainfall expanded the range of the fungus. Raindrops hitting the ground caused spores to bounce up and be carried away by the wind or birds, to do their damage elsewhere. By the 1930s, virtually the entire chestnut forest had been wiped out.
Early efforts to control the fungus with toxic chemicals failed. Even clearcutting and burning did little to stop the spread of the disease, which killed everything but the roots. New spouts that came up from the root system were quickly wounded and died.
Scientists scrambled for ways to preserve this giant of the forest, but with little success. Then a few years ago scientists in France made a critical discovery. A related fungus caused damage to chestnut trees, but it did not kill them.
Anagnostakis began treating the wounds in American chestnut trees with the non-lethal fungus, hoping to inoculate them against the fatal disease. She found that while it didn’t cure the disease, it held it in check. Her “bio control” method could keep young American chestnut trees alive long enough for them to reach maturity and flower and reproduce.
The surviving trees weren’t a thing of beauty, because the fungus caused deep wounds that left the trees gnarled and of no value as timber.
But at least it was a start.