Romancing the American Chestnut

  • American chestnuts (left) are smaller than Chinese and European chestnuts. The Chinese and European varieties are also resistant to the blight, making the imports more desirable to growers. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one
traditional food has – for the most part – disappeared from American tables. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one traditional food has – for the most part – disapeared from American tables. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

(Sound of Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasing 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 out.

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 blight. At Nash Nursuries 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 animals.

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 spread.”

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 Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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Clear-Cut Demonstration Angers Forest’s Neighbors

  • Stands of pine like this have been clear-cut to demonstrate an option that forest owners can take to manage their property. (Photo by Keran McKenzie)

Most forests in the Great Lakes region are privately owned. That concerns the U.S. Forest Service because the agency says many forest owners don’t know how to properly manage their woodlands. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports that a new education project that demonstrates tree-harvesting techniques has angered some residents:


Most forests in the Great Lakes region are privately owned. That concerns the U.S.
Forest Service because the agency says many forest owners don’t know how to properly
manage their woodlands. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports that a
new education project that demonstrates tree-harvesting techniques has angered some residents:

(sound of chain saws)

Workers are cutting down trees in a fifty-year-old pine crop. At the same time, state
foresters are leading a botanist, a private tree farmer, and a reporter through this forest
education site. One of the foresters, Rick Miller, is directing the chain saws to show what
needs to be cut for what’s called a “crop tree release.”

“This one here we selected out with the orange flags, the trees that show the best form and
dominance in the crown. They have a nice big healthy crown. And then what we’re doing is removing
any trees that are touching the crowns of those ones that are orange, and just opening it up
to give the crown more room up there to spread out and possibly increase their growth and their

A forest owner who wants to make money off his pine stand might do a crop tree release to
improve the quality of the remaining timber. The bigger the tree, the more money it’s worth
to a logging company.

Heading deeper in, a crop of pine trees lined up like soldiers trails to our right, and wilder
hardwoods shade us from the left. There are signs to demarcate different timbering techniques:
improvement cut, understory removal, selective cut. Project manager Frank Corona stops at one
section of oaks, maples and cherries.

“You have small trees, medium trees, some larger trees. Trees are probably selectively
harvested in here and you have all different ages of trees in this stand…”

The cool shaded path abruptly opens up. The lush canopy is replaced by harsh sunlight.

GRANT: “Oh wow, so this is the clear-cut…”

CORONA: “This is the clear-cut.”

The forest is gone… cut to the ground. All that remains are the 120 hardwood stumps on
the torn-up dirt. Botanist Steve McKee suports construction of the demonstration site.
But he also loves trees.

GRANT: “What do you think when you see that clear-cut?”

MCKEE: “Well, clear-cuts are never pretty, ya know? So, uh, I think the most shocking thing
for me is I’ve walked in this my whole life and it was surprising. But I knew it
was coming too, so…”

But some people in the community say they didn’t know the demonstration project would include
clear-cutting older trees. Anne McCormack hikes the Mohican nearly every day, clearing trails,
cleaning garbage, or enjoying the woods. The education site has been roped off from the public
during construction. But she found out there was a clear-cut demonstration in an old growth
section of the forest.

“So, I just was… I was just shocked. I mean I can’t say anything more. I just felt
terrible for… I felt terrible for the trees that stood there since before white settlers
were even in Mohican. And there they just were bulldozed and chain cut for education.
I mean, it doesn’t add up.”

McCormack’s not the only one who’s upset. A lot of people didn’t realize this is what
the Forest Service had in mind. Back at the clear-cut site, Corona says many trees suffer
from disease when they mature to 120 years. He says it’s a good age for private land owners
to consider the clear-cut option.

“This was a time where before they would rot out or anything and we see more damage, more
susceptibility health-wise in the entire stand, we could make a harvest in here and utilize
those trees and start this whole new cycle of growth in here.”

The foresters and forest owners say clear-cutting is a viable option, and just one of the
many examples at the demonstration project in the Mohican forest.

Tree farmer Scott Galloway says people need to understand that owning a forest is another
form of family farming. For instance, he got a call recently from a man who inherited 30
acres and needed money right away. He doesn’t know how to manage his tree crop.

“Where does he go? How do you make the right decisions quickly? The faster he can make
decisions, in his lifetime with his forest, the sooner he’ll be able to enjoy the benefits
of those decisions. It’s all about forestry, wildlife, natural resources. So the more education he
can get, the better those decisions will be and the better off all of us are environmentally because of it.”

The Forest Service says a demonstration project is needed because forest acreage is getting
cut up into smaller and smaller parcels. That means the forests are owned by more and more
people who need to know how to manage their timber. The Forest Service hopes this project
will help them make better decisions.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Grant.

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