The American chestnut tree at one time was a very important forest tree in the United States. It grew in huge quantities across the eastern portion of the United States before a terrible blight from abroad took an awful toll on the species. The chestnut tree is a member of the beech family and a deciduous tree that now grows mainly from the stumps of blighted chestnuts.
The chestnut tree was integral to both the Native Americans and the settlers in the United States. The tasty nuts of the tree provided a source of food. The wood of the chestnut was used for such items as caskets, furniture, crates and musical instruments. Huge stands of chestnuts were common, with trees often exceeding 80 feet in height. According to the Volstate website, one of every four trees in the Appalachians was a chestnut until the blight arrived.
The first signs of the blight came in 1904 when chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo in New York City began to succumb to a mysterious disease. Researchers theorize that the disease, caused by a fungus known as Chryphonectria parasitica, made its way from Japan into the northeastern states in the latter part of the 19th century. Once in this country it began to destroy chestnut trees by affecting the bark tissue. With no resistance to this new threat, billions of chestnut trees had died from this blight by the 1950s. The only remaining chestnuts are those that sprout from the stumps, but these perish from the blight in as quickly as15 years after perhaps growing to be 25 feet tall.
The American chestnut thrived in both dry soils and in damp soil. It easily tolerated full sun and did well where the ground was acidic. It had a geographical range from southern Maine through New England into the Mid-Atlantic States southward. It grew as far south as the state of Mississippi and as far west as Ohio in the north and as far west as parts of Arkansas and Missouri in the southern part of its range.
Scientists have tried to resurrect the chestnut tree by breeding blight-resistant trees. Simply planting chestnut seedlings is fruitless, since the blight will quickly claim them. By crossing American chestnuts with various Asian species that have exposure and resistance to the blight in their native land, science hopes to bring the chestnut back.
Chestnut leaves are alternate, with a single leaf developing at each node on the twig. The leaves have the shape of a spear-point and are 2 inches wide and 5 to 6 inches long. The leaves have toothed margins, and they are a dark green on top with a more pale green below. The leaves are smooth and turn golden, brownish or yellow in the fall before falling off.