“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ….”

As Christmas approaches, this refrain can be heard in grocery stores, on the radio, and even in the ether as our memories are triggered by the season. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) once dominated the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia. Estimates suggest that in some areas, between one in four canopy trees was a chestnut with a total of four billion trees in its range. The American chestnut was a giant in the landscape. Archival pictures show people dwarfed by their majesty. Trees were reported to grow to almost a hundred feet, some with a girth of more than 10 feet. Unfortunately, the inadvertent introduction of a blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) in 1904 led to the rapid and almost total eradication of this keystone species. Today, a few adult specimens survive, but generally, chestnut sprouts die off before they reach maturity. The chestnut trees that survive to adulthood now are blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts.

The Family of James and Caroline Shelton pose by a large dead Chestnut Tree in Tremont Falls, Tennessee circa 1920. Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library


People gathered the fall bounty to sustain themselves, fattened their hogs on them in the open woods. Photo courtesy The American Chestnut Foundation

The cultural importance of this tree was immense, and its loss was tragic. Appalachian inhabitants relied extensively on chestnut trees for shelter and food. Not only did the trees grow tall and straight, making them excellent for building, fencing, and even telegraph poles, the wood was rot-resistant and split easily. Moreover, as a food source, chestnuts were a treasure. People gathered the fall bounty to sustain themselves, fattened their hogs on them in the open woods, and sold the surplus to buy things that would otherwise be unattainable, such as shoes and property taxes.

The American Chestnut Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and researchers at many universities, including Clemson, are working towards developing blight-resistant hybrids to reforest their original range.

The natural range of the American chestnut extended from Mississippi to southern Ontario and as far northeast as Maine. Photo courtesy The American Chestnut Foundation

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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