Introduction: Thanks for viewing NATURE NOTES. Use whatever you might learn here to make your scouts more aware of the nature around them.
Our current topic: The American Chestnut
The American chestnut has a story with so many pieces. Some of you may be familiar with this story, but others may not, so let’s tell it from the beginning.
Prior to the early 1900’s, the American chestnut tree was one of the most abundant, useful and majestic tree in eastern North American. Some scientists have estimated that 25% of all of the trees in the forest stretching through the mid-Atlantic, Appalachia, and Ohio Valley were chestnuts. That’s a lot of chestnuts. This country, in many ways, was built with chestnut lumber cut by the early settlers for buildings, fences and furniture. The wood was easy to work with, durable and readily available. Each fall as the chestnuts fell, mountain people would flock to gather chestnuts to ship to city markets for a delicious treat and to provide an ingredient in a variety of recipes. It was a needed cash crop for those who gathered them. Wildlife was provided food as well. All was well in the Chestnut world, until 1905 when a new blight was discovered on some native chestnut trees in New York. It was thought to have been accidently imported from Asia. Our native chestnuts had no resistance to this fatal blight and it spread rapidly throughout the North American range leaving behind forests with huge stands of dying trees. By about 1940, most mature trees were gone. The reign of the chestnut was gone. Almost. While it is almost impossible to find mature American chestnut trees today, many areas, like the BRSR have many small immature trees growing on many of the higher ridges. These young trees are spouts from old chestnut root systems that have remained alive after the blight has killed the former tree. However, as these young sprouts grow, they too will be hit by the blight and eventually die, leaving behind a bare stalk of the young tree. More sprouts will emerge, again, to face almost certain death in the years ahead. Fortunately, there is some hope. The Chinese chestnut has a natural resistance to the blight. Scientists have been working for decades to create a blight resistant hybrid between the Chinese and American chestnut. It involves crossing the pollen from one species to the other and developing a new tree that is blight resistant, but with most of the original characteristics of the American chestnut. This type of work takes years to produce results as trees need to mature to a reproductive stage. Much of this work is being done in Smyth County by the American Chestnut Foundation, a non-profit, non-government agency. Time will tell, but saplings of this new chestnut are being planted throughout the original range and the results are promising. Will we see this tree return to its original splendor in eastern North America? Not any time soon, but there is hope.
So this is a real story that has several great lessons about nature. What can we learn from all of this? Let’s start with the danger of a blight being brought into a population that has no resistance and decimating that population. There is a need for constant vigilance and caution on importing plants. Also, if 25% of our forests were killed, why aren’t there big holes in today’s forest? Answer: because nature is very resilient. Other species, such as oaks, hickories, beech, have been given an opportunity to expand and fill those holes and use that sunlight and nutrients that were formerly used by chestnut. It’s called plant succession. Are we doomed once a species is vanished like the chestnut? We were able to find other species of wood for our human uses. We adjusted. Wildlife did not disappear. They adjusted. And research is making great strides to bring back this species through crossbreeding and generic engineering. I’ve asked my forestry merit badge classes: Is this science or forestry? The answer of course is “both”. Forestry is science. It’s a slow process. Why? Compared to research on corn or wheat, trees take much longer to grow. Patience. Nature has lots of time.
Look up the American chestnut on the internet (acf.org) or in a field guide to see what it looks like and learn more about its story. You can find young trees rather easily in many high, dryer sites on the reservation and throughout southwest Virginia. Also keep a lookout for chestnut furniture or recycled boards in antique stores. It’s not cheap today. Yesteryear, it was plentiful. Nature changes.