Nature Bulletin No. 371-A February 28, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Imagine what our forest preserves would be like if all the oaks died!
That is what happened to the millions of chestnut trees that were
formerly so plentiful from southern Maine and Ontario to Georgia;
west to Indiana, southern Michigan and northern Mississippi; and
especially in the Appalachian chain of mountains, That is why the
discovery of the oak wilt disease which has killed so many oaks here in
Cook County and in at least 18 states, has thrown foresters and lumber
men into such a dither.
Years ago on cold winter nights families would sit around the fireplace
and roast chestnuts in the embers. On the street corners downtown
they were sold, piping hot, for a nickel a bag. Those sweet-flavored
kernels were a delicacy. Although the "spreading chestnut tree" in
Longfellow's poem about the village smithy happened to be a horse
chestnut, it is true that the streets in many New England villages were
shaded by big wide-spreading American Chestnut trees. They were one
of the most common and valuable trees in the forests. Not now!
In 1937 we traveled the Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue
Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park The views were
magnificent but we were shocked and saddened to see the graveyard of
a forest. The mountain sides were thick with bare weather-bleached
snags of dead chestnut trees. Their gaunt trunks, some of them huge
and with a few of the larger limbs remaining, rose like tombstones
above dense tangles of undergrowth and vines. Around the base of
most dead snags and fallen monarchs were thickets, often 10 to 15 feet
across, of young chestnuts -- apparently sprouted from the long-lived
roots of the parent trees. Some probably had sprung up during the
preceding year, others were larger and occasionally there was one 3 or
4 inches in diameter but on the stems of these were the ugly cankers
formed by the blight-causing fungus that kills the inner bark, and
many were already dead or dying.
The American Chestnut and the smaller, more bushy Chinquapin of
our southeastern states, are two of seven species of chestnuts native in
the northern hemisphere. Suited to a wide variety of soils, the former
attained greatest size in the southern Appalachians where one monster
was reported to have a trunk diameter of 10 feet and trees with
diameters of 5 or 6 feet, from 80 to 100 feet high, were not
uncommon. The tapering trunk had several large branches, often
horizontal when growing in the open, to form a broad, somewhat
pyramidal crown. The leaves were from 6 to 8 inches long, about 2
inches wide, with coarse hooked teeth along the edges. In early
summer, it bore long spiky catkins of male flowers and shorter catkins
of both male and female flowers followed by the fruit: 2 or 3 nuts
enclosed in a bur covered with long needle-sharp branched spines, The
wood, though coarse, light and not very strong, was very durable and
desirable for posts, telegraph poles, railroad ties and other purposes,
Chipped-up chestnut wood was one of the principal sources of tannin,
used in tanning leather, the chips then being used to make pulp for
paper or cardboard.
The blight was first discovered near New York City in 1904, before w
e had plant quarantine laws, probably from fungus on young chestnuts,
imported from China or Japan, which are resistant to it. It spread like
wildfire. Today there are only a very few mature American chestnuts
alive -- notably in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and southern Illinois.
The disease ravaged Italy where the European chestnut, as a nut
producer, ranked next in value to the grape vine and olive tree.
Somep'n like communism, eh?
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Update: June 2012