Sunday, September 23, 2007

The American Chestnut

This is a sight that was once common as can be, but now an extremely rare part of the landscape. We're looking into the crown of a mature forest, and into the canopy of a mature American Chestnut, Castanea dentata. This is the biggest tree of this now nearly vanished species that I've ever seen, and it's probably one of the largest left anywhere. I was fortunate to get to view this specimen, in an off the beaten path locale in Erie County.

Once covering about 9 million acres of forested lands from the New England states south to Florida and west into the Ohio Valley, an estimated 4 billion American Chestnuts were an integral cog in the eastern deciduous forest. In places, perhaps one in four mature trees of any type were this species. So abundant were they that some woodlands were said to appear snow-capped from afar, due to the prolific white blooms of chestnuts in June. The tree above is big, but chestnuts could get far bigger, rivaling any of the other sylvan giants of the forest.

Enter the chestnut blight. First detected in 1904, this Asian fungus attacks chestnuts, which have no natural resistance and quickly perished as the fungus spread through the landscape. By 1950, this magnificent species had disappeared, with the exception of the odd tree, like the one above. Many others persist as root sprouts that arise off old stumps year after year, but after these shoots hit 10 or 15 feet in height they are atacked by the blight and killed back. From left are Cheryl Harner, Jim Decker, and Daniel Boone admiring the jumbo chestnut. And yes, that's really Dan's name.

They got a lot bigger than our fine specimen in the old pre-blight days, though. This whopper was in the southern Appalachians, and the photo is probably from the early 1900's.

A chestnut involucre; the prickly case that holds the fruit. Although this tree bore prolific fruit, all were apparently abortive; not producing nuts apparently because a lack of cross pollination. These "burs" are quite prickly and have been referred to as vegetative procupines. Good protection for the sweet nutlets that normally would have resided within. And those nuts were coveted by many a mammal, from humans to turkeys to squirrels to deer.

This would have been a common scene a century ago in much of the eastern forest in fall - the forest floor littered with spiny chestnut burs. It was a real privilege to get this glimpse into a vanished part of our forest heritage, even if only through this one tree.

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1 comment:

ivory said...

Thank you for identifying the prickled Chestnut Tree in my front yard. I've spent the last year thinking it was some weird Buckeye...