Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Chestnut Blight
Nature Bulletin No. 371-A   February 28, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

CHESTNUT BLIGHT
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! They're kaput.

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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