Editorial: American chestnut may rise again

  • Burs from an American chestnut tree litter the ground in Grassy Creek, N.C. AP

Published: 5/8/2016 12:05:14 AM

Last weekend, the Monitor’s David Brooks reported on the latest chapter in the ongoing effort to restore the American chestnut to eastern forests. Six trees – crossbred with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut over multiple generations – were planted on Concord land owned by St. Paul’s School and managed by the New Hampshire Audubon Society.

Curt Laffin, a member of the American Chestnut Foundation, suggested to Brooks that he is cautiously optimistic. While the trees are certainly hardier than a pure American chestnut, there is no “absolutely blight-resistant tree.” To punctuate the point, Laffin said eight similar trees were planted in Hudson five years ago and three have already succumbed to chestnut blight.

But the effort alone, regardless of the level of success in the near term, should be applauded and actively supported. To restore the chestnut to New Hampshire forests is to return to an earlier, better version of this beautiful landscape.

In the middle of the 19th century, one in four hardwood trees in forests from Maine to Georgia was an American chestnut. A single mature tree, reports the nonprofit American Forests, could produce as many as 6,000 nuts, which because they were loaded with protein and vitamins were a vital food staple for bears, deer and other wildlife, just as they greatly contributed to the survival of early settlers and their livestock. The blondish wood was strong and rot-resistant, and used for barns and fences, furniture and even pianos. And there was a seemingly endless supply – that is until something started to go terribly wrong.

A fungus, which hitched a ride on imported Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees and wasn’t identified until 1904, began to decimate the American variety. The destruction of nearly 4 billion trees was all but complete by the middle of the 20th century. The “redwoods of the East,” which could grow to be a 100 feet tall and 6 feet around, were reduced to scattered saplings shooting out of the stumps of deceased trees.

Now, scientists appear to be on the verge of a grand return for the American chestnut – and the effect that would have on eastern ecosystems would be substantial. It’s difficult to overstate just how much the loss of the chestnut affected forests.

“In its prime,” Ferris Jabr wrote in Scientific American, “the American chestnut determined the physical structure and microclimate of the forest, creating specific and stable environmental conditions on which many other creatures depended. When the American chestnut fell, the whole forest shuddered.”

Once scientists reach their goal of blight-resistant trees, the American chestnut “will change the forest from floor to canopy.” Jabr writes that the trees will bring shade to areas that have too little, their leaves will deliver more nutrients to the soil and streams, and their trunks will become home to billions of mammals and insects. And, of course, they will eventually begin to drop piles of delicious and nutritious chestnuts, which will be a game-changer for hungry bears and deer that too often extend the search for food into human neighborhoods.

While waiting for the triumphant return of the chestnut, we encourage people to explore the woods and in the process aid the mission of the American Chestnut Foundation. The group’s website, afc.org, has directions on how to submit twig and leaf samples to determine whether you have indeed found an American chestnut survivor.

There are certainly worse ways to spend a spring or summer day than searching the New Hampshire woods for lost treasure.

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