Romancing the American Chestnut

  • The smaller American chestnuts on the left were a part of culture for people who lived in hardwood forested areas of the U.S. The Chinese chestnuts on the right are not susceptible to the blight.

Food is always a big part of the holidays. But
one traditional food has – for the most part – disappeared
from American tables. Lester Graham explains:


Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one traditional food has – for the
most part – disappeared from American tables. Lester Graham reports:

(Sound of Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”)

That old chestnut of a song romanticizes roasting chestnuts as a part of the
holidays. But a lot of us have never even seen chestnuts, let alone roasted them
on an open fire. Chestnuts used to be a major part of the Eastern hardwood
forest. There were millions of them. In fact, 25 percent of all the mature trees
were chestnuts. But a blight, imported with some Chinese chestnut trees, slowly
wiped out the American chestnuts. Now, they’re gone.

Well… almost. Much of the root stock is still alive. Sprouts grow until the blight
knocks them back again. A blight only hurts the standing tree where it branches

And, in a few isolated pockets in the Midwest, the blight hasn’t reached the trees.
A few American chestnuts are alive and growing and some of them are free of the

At Nash Nurseries in central Michigan, owner Bill Nash is guiding us through a
rare sight… a grove of American chestnuts.

“These are 20 years old and as you can see, they’re fairly good sized. The
American chestnut is quite a rapid growing tree. It’s well-suited for our climate,
so it doesn’t have any of the problems that some of the hybrids do as far as
growing and cultural care you have to take care of them. The Americans, you get
them started and they’re pretty much on their own.”

In a few places in Michigan and Wisconsin there are small groves of chestnuts.
They’re prized trees. They’re great for shade. The hardwood is rot resistant and
makes great furniture and fence posts. And the chestnuts are eaten by humans
and wildlife alike. Bill Nash says the tree will be popular again if it ever
overcomes the blight that’s hit it so hard.

“The American chestnut will make another big comeback in this country as a yard
tree, as a timber tree, as a wildlife tree.”

That part about a wildlife tree is more important than just worrying about the
squirrels and bunnies. Chestnuts were an important food source for all kinds of

Andrew Jarosz is a plant biologist at Michigan State University. He says the loss
of chestnuts has been hard on wildlife populations.

“Chestnuts shed nuts in a more regular pattern than oaks, which will have what
are called mast years – where they’ll have major crops, massive crops one year
and very small crops in other years – which means it’s either feast or famine if
you’re depending on oaks.”

Since the blight first began hitting American chestnuts about a century ago,
researchers have been looking into all kinds of ways to stop it. One way is to cross
it with the Chinese chestnut which has a couple of genes that resist the blight. But
it takes a long time to breed out the Chinese characteristics from the American
chestnuts and still keep the resistant genes.

Another approach is genetic manipulation. Genetically modifying the American
chestnut tree to make it disease resistant. Again, work is underway, but it takes a
long time. And even after success, it’s likely some people won’t like the idea of
releasing a genetically modified organism into the wild.

The final approach worked in Europe when the blight hit there. It seems there’s a
naturally occuring virus that kills the blight. It spread naturally in Europe. There
are a few groves in Michigan that have naturally acquired the virus and it’s
working to keep the blight at bay.

Andrew Jarosz is working on the research. He says the trick is figuring out how to
get the virus to spread to other trees short of manually spreading it on cankers
infected by the blight.

“If we’re literally talking about millions of trees across probably, you know, the
eastern third of the country, we obviously can’t treat every canker on every tree.
And we need to be able to figure out a way to deploy the virus in a way that it can

Even with all that hopeful research, it’ll be ten years at least before some practical
solutions end up in the forests, and Jarosz believes a couple of centuries before
the American chestnut holds the place it once did in the forests.

Bill Nash knows it’ll be a while before there are major changes, but he is
optimistic about the American chestnut.

“Oh, I would think the tree has a bright future. There’s enough people working on
that, enough programs going on now. So, I would suspect that in the not-too-
distant future we should have some of this progress made. You know, Robert
Frost in his poem predicted the comeback of the American chestnut, that
something would arise to offset that blight. And we’re starting to see that.”

Frost put it this way: “Will the blight end the chestnut? The farmers rather guess
not, It keeps smoldering at the roots And sending up new shoots Till another
parasite Shall come to end the blight.”

Seems Frost was an optimist too.

For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links