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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Fallen Majesty --Will the Mighty American Chestnut Make a Comeback?

Written by Danny Ruthenberg-Marshall ’11, Student Designed Major in Environmental Studies and Film

Perhaps someday, we all will be able to sit beneath the "spreading chestnut tree," as efforts to bring new saplings able to fi ght the blight are showing promise. Each American chestnut tree used to produce 10 bushels of nuts a year.

Walking through the woods is something I loved to do as a child and I fell back in love with those strolls a few years ago. Becoming lost in the world around me, forgetting all of the issues and troubles of the ‘civilized’ world, has grown into my favorite hobby. Why do I have to tie myself down to a world of today that I did not choose when I can go looking for the way things used to be?

But that’s just it − I will never fi nd the way things used to be. The forest I walk through used to be a vastly different world from the one it is now. It was an ecosystem that I would not be able to recognize if I went back in time. I am not talking about back in the age of the dinosaurs or even pre-European settlement. I am referring to a mere hundred years ago.

I sit, talking with my grandmother, asking her what it was like to grow up watching the last of the chestnut trees die. What was it like watching the mightiest organism in the ecosystem fall to one of the tiniest? To see the entire known landscape be completely reshaped in a matter of decades? She grew up in North Carolina, on the eastern edge of the chestnut tree’s dominance. It was in 1904, well before my grandmother’s 1921 birth, that the American chestnut blight, Cryphonectria parasitica, first appeared in New York City, but some of those mighty trees were still hanging tough in the 1920s and '30s when my grandmother was growing up.

ChestnutsThe American chestnut, castanea dentata, used to rule the woods we’ve carved our homes through. Stretching from eastern Arkansas to northeastern Georgia, all the way north into Maine and Canada, this tree reigned supreme. It made up as much as 50 percent of some of the forested areas, numbering three to four billion trees. To put that in perspective, that was roughly twice as many humans as walked the earth at that time.

Even more impressive than their abundance was their majesty. One American chestnut found in South Carolina measured 17 feet in diameter or over 53 feet in circumference. That’s like 10 people holding hands in a circle and stretching out as far as they can. The average chestnut of the day was 10 feet in diameter, or about five people holding hands. They reached up to 100 feet tall, and when not in direct competition with other trees, their canopies became an artist’s definition of the perfect shape.

From a commercial perspective, the American chestnut had unrivaled versatility. Its lumber, was used to make telephone poles, furniture, shingles, fence posts, log cabins (including many of the homes found at Scientist Cliffs in Calvert County), and anything else you can name made of wood. Prized for its incredibly slow rate of decay, chestnut was especially useful for outdoor construction, where it could weather the elements untreated. Its nuts littered the forest floors and provided both a source of food and a second source of income for rural farmers. The tannin that made the tree rot so slowly was ideal for leather tanning. The industry survived for more than a decade following the destruction of the chestnut by harvesting the already fallen trees.

When the blight came over from Asia, there was much debate about its potential for harm and much discussion about trying to stop it. Little action was taken, and by the time people realized the extent of the destruction, it was far too late to do anything effective. The people could do nothing but watch as four billion trees died, a way of life was lost, and an ecosystem was ravaged.

However, there is now hope. The fungus cannot attack the roots of the tree, and thus, millions of individual organisms survive today, sending up small shoots that are struck down by the disease upon reaching maturity. These specimens occasionally provide seeds, which the American Chestnut Foundation is using to breed the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to the blight. Each subsequent generation is then bred again with pure seed from the organism with superior physical traits. The idea is to end with a specimen that is physically identical to the original but with the added, desired gene. They are now only a few years from discovering whether all of their efforts have been worth it.

Other efforts to resurrect the tree continue throughout the Atlantic region, including right here in our own Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC), where a grove of chestnut saplings was planted in April 2009. These saplings are from a Pennsylvania State University research team that is working separately from the American Chestnut Foundation to find a blight-resistant specimen. These experimental saplings are being planted all through the native range of the chestnut, and HSMC planted theirs in fields off of Mattapany Road.

A 30-foot juvenile chestnut can also be found along the main hiking trail through Historic St. Mary’s City. It is near the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation and is listed as number five on the HSMC trail map. You can readily identify it by the oblong, jagged-edged leaves that taper at the tip. The bark is relatively smooth, though colonies of orange fungi can be seen in various sores, the first signs of the soon-to-be-fatal blight.

My sincere hope is that someday I can go lose myself in the woods and walk under the shade of a new generation of American chestnut trees. Castanea dentata has been gone from these forests for too long to immediately resume its former majesty, but my dream is that soon it will begin its ascent in the woods that used to be its domain.