Mariton: American Chestnuts

September 12, 2012

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Today, it is hard for us to fathom the impact of the chestnut blight on our landscape.  The American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was a dominant tree in eastern forests before the fungus infected trees and virtually eliminated the species within forty years.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer does a good job impressing the importance of chestnuts in Appalachian culture.  Still, it is difficult for us to grasp just how chestnuts pervaded our forests and lives before the blight.

More than just having a lot of trees in the forest, it was an important species for humans and wildlife.  Humans have always eaten chestnuts.   Many historians think that acorns were a staple of Native American diets.  I contend that in our area they rarely ate acorns, because chestnuts were so abundant.  Acorns are a spotty crop.  Some years they bear abundantly; some years there are very few acorns.  Acorns are full of tannins and have to be boiled multiple times to make them palatable.  Conversely, chestnuts produce abundant crops every year.  They are sweet and can be eaten raw or roasted without processing.  Finally, in pre-colonial times, chestnuts were more abundant than oaks in our forests.  I have seen a photograph circa late 1800’s of mountain folk standing in front of a pile of chestnuts that is as big as a house.  People gathered chestnuts from the forest to eat, feed livestock and to sell.  Of course, bear, turkeys, deer, squirrels, and other wildlife love chestnuts.

American Chestnut was an important lumber product.  It grew quickly, and was tall and straight.  Trees could reach 100 feet in height and 7 feet in diameter.  It was rot resistant and easy to split.  American Chestnut lumber was used for fence posts, utility poles, railroad ties, and barn beams.  It also was used for beautiful furniture. 

While Chinese Chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) are quite edible, the wood doesn’t have the same attributes of the American Chestnut.  Nor does the Chinese chestnut grow tall and straight, even in a forest setting.  So, it has limited value for lumber.  I have milled some Chinese Chestnut, and was never really impressed with it.  I couldn’t keep it from twisting.  Most of it ended up as fire wood and it didn’t even burn well.

As they say:  “you don’t miss your water, ’til your well goes dry.”  It is now that we should be really appreciating our native species.  Emerald Ash Borer decimates Ash Trees; Wolly Adelgids affect Hemlocks, and White Nose Sydrome causes bat populations to crash.  We need to start hugging trees.  We need to reflect upon their impact (both individual and collective) on our lives.