American Chestnut- Castanea dentata was the great tree of the eastern forest. It was a towering giant of a tree. It was adapted to the dry ridgetops of Eastern North America from Canada to Florida and west to the Great Plains. The trees grew fast and straight as young trees to reach the sunlight only slowing their growth as maturity allowed them to begin producing nuts. The vast crop of nuts fed almost every kind of wildlife and humans as well. The nuts were small and sweet and high in carbohydrates. The pioneers fattened their hogs each fall on Chestnuts.
This giant of the forest, which in some areas made up 80% of the trees in the forest, was wiped out in just a few years by a fungus brought into the country of some Japanese Chestnut trees. The time period when this happened was a time that plant hunters and botanists were moving plants from all over the world to improve and decorate their farms and gardens. They had no way of knowing the devastation they were bringing. It was one of several plant disasters that brought about a quarantine system for new plant introductions.
The fungus, Endothia parasitica, also known as Chestnut Blight, attacks the cambium layer of the tree. This is the layer under the bark that grows the tree. This is where the sap carrying water and nutrients flows up and down the tree. The fungus feeds on this layer and as it spreads it girdles the tree starving it to death. The fungus is spread by a common bark beetle
that feeds on several kinds of trees. The disease is still around living in the bark of Scarlet Oaks- Quercus coccinea, a common oak in the Red Oak family. The Scarlet Oak is not harmed significantly by the fungus.
Chestnut Trees from around the world are known to coppice well. Coppicing is the practice of cutting a tree to the ground to force it to make stump sprouts to be used as poles for a variety of uses. The American Chestnut is no different. To this day, stump sprouts are still rising from the old stumps and growing a few years before succumbing to the fungus.
There is work being done to try to overcome the Chestnut Blight. Some of this is being done by cross breeding with Chinese Chestnut to induce blight resistance. The other tactic is genetic modification using a Wheat gene that gives blight resistance. There is now hope that we will have American Chestnuts in our forests again someday. For now we have blight susceptible trees grown from seed of isolated trees growing outside of the native range and beyond the reach of the blight. Blight susceptible trees will survive a few years but will very likely succumb before maturing to make nuts.
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