The American Chestnut: Fallen Titan

Photo by Carin Wagner

Did you know that the American Chestnut used to comprise up to 25% of some our eastern hardwood forests? The range of these extraordinary trees stretched from Maine to Georgia and west to Illinois.
In 1904, disaster struck, in the form of a fungal blight, now know as Cryphonectria parasitica, or chestnut blight. It was first noticed by Hermann Merkel, the chief forester of the New York Zoological Park. He tried everything he could think of to treat the trees, but nothing worked. The blight spread to the surrounding trees, carried by the wind. Huge swaths were clear cut in an attempt to form a sort of firebreak, with no success. Less than 50 years later, almost 4 BILLION Chestnut trees had died.
The chestnut was an important food crop for people in rural areas, particularly in Appalachia. They were an important source of nutrition for the forest animals as well. One mature tree in the forest could produce thousands of nuts. Once that food source vanished, woodland creatures starved. The people depending on the crops for their very existence no longer had a means of support.
In the 1930s, the blight spread to Europe and began to attack the European chestnut trees. It seemed as though a similar disaster was looming. Then, in the 60s, French scientist Jean Grente discovered a white fungus, as opposed to the usual orange color. The trees with the white fungus had healed. In 1972, scientists at CAES, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station tested samples that Grente had sent of the white fungus and made a breakthrough. The blight had caught a virus. European scientists and the CAES scientists worked on inoculating the cankers with the weaker fungus, and had some success.

There is much more to the story. If you are interested in a deeper reading, I will recommend a few books at the end of this blog.
Some excellent organizations including The American Chestnut Foundation and  American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation are experimenting with backcrossing and intercrossing. Scientists at the State University of New York are working on incorporating a gene from wheat in order to provide a protective shield. Here is a paragraph from an excellent article by Gabriel Popkin explaining the process:

Graph from Champions by Sally M. Walker

“Powell noticed one titled “Expression of Oxalate Oxidase in Transgenic Plants Provides Resistance to Oxalic Acid and Oxalate-Producing Fungi.” From his virus research, Powell knew that the blight fungus exudes oxalic acid to kill chestnut bark and make it digestible. If the chestnut could produce its own oxalate oxidase, a specialized protein that breaks down oxalic acid, it might be able to defend itself, Powell realized. “That,” he says, “was my eureka moment.”

Armed with a small amount of knowledge and a vast interest, I reached out to Gabriel to ask if he knew of any mature trees that I could photograph. He told me of a few that he had seen and referred me to The American Chestnut Foundation and The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation.
The people from TACF were really kind and generous with their information about the trees. An email chain was started and by the end of it, I was excited to learn of a few trees on the Appalachian trail. Within a few weeks, I was on my way to meet Jon Taylor, who would take me to the trees. Jon has found and counted over 38,000 chestnut trees and 119 “large” trees over 4″ in diameter while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Carin Wagner

Coming from Florida, where most of the landscape is varying shades of green, the glorious fall colors come as a shock. Bright lemon yellows, burnt oranges and vibrant reds distinguish themselves from the deep greens of pine and fir. I have been warned that the chestnut won’t have many leaves left. Leaves flutter about us as we walk. Under our feet is a kaleidoscope of hues.
The first tree is a short walk up the trail. It stands straight and tall just a few feet off the path. A smattering of leaves still cling and in the grey light they are the elegant brown of moth wings. Jon is sharing this lovely tree for the first time with others. I spend some time with this tree trying to capture it’s essence, but the base is too crowded to get comfortable and familiar. After some time, Jon leads us to a few trees that he initially spotted from the fire tower on top of Albert mountain. After discovering them from afar, he set off to try to locate them on the ground. He found them and measured them, recording the numbers to send back to TACF.
When it came time to show us the trees, there was a fairly steep slope to navigate. With Jon leading the way, I stepped tentatively, trying hard not to disturb the undergrowth, but there were at least 6 inches of decomposing leaf with a good bit of slippy mud underneath, and it was difficult to leave no trace of my passage. Whenever possible I touched a friendly tree trunk to steady myself and keep from sliding downhill. Once we made it to the two beautiful trees growing just a few feet apart with intertwined roots, I settled in for a bit, working to find a good angle. These two trees had only a few leaves left, but gorgeous emerald moss blanketed the lower trunks. After gingerly navigating halfway around the most accessible tree, I felt I had done a better job capturing a good angle. Jon was ready to lead us up to the fire tower with a few more small trees on the way. The path up the side of the mountain was rocky but sparkled with mica. The sun finally broke through, showing a deep azure with the gold and crimson of the leaves gloriously backlit.

The view from the fire tower, photo by Carin Wagner

Wishing I had a bit more mountain goat in my genes, we continued to climb until Jon ducked into a little gap between the trees, showing me a chestnut that is still alive but not thriving. A few curled leaves clung to its upper branches. If he hadn’t shown us this tree, I would never have seen it. A little further on, there was a rocky tableau with a few skinny chestnut saplings framing a spectacular view. A small snake resting in a sunbeam gave a bit of a head shake of annoyance at our intrusion. A bit further and we were at the fire observation tower. There were a few hikers already claiming the spot so we dispersed in order to give them room. Eventually, we made our way to the top, where Jon showed us how he had spotted the trees, and we read a bit about the ecological experiments that had been done in the area.
Since the light was now so fine, I asked if I could get in one more visit with the tree off the path, the easiest tree to reach. We descended fairly quickly and made our way back. Now the little brown pennants were blazing orange against the deep blue sky. Several of the leaves drifted past, as I again attempted to capture the glory of this tree.
Leaving the mountain was bittersweet, knowing that I can’t just head back the next day to get a better shot. Hopefully I will be able to spend more time with these trees in spring, so that I can truly do them justice.

Photo by Carin Wagner Brown

Much of my information in this blog post came from the book Champion by Sally M. Walker, and The American Chestnut Foundation. For deeper reading, I would also recommend Mighty Giants: An America Chestnut Anthology.

If you’d like to support my work, consider buying a print from my website.

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