The American chestnut

When William Penn arrived in the new world in 1682, he saw a land rich with natural resources, and the following year, when he wrote back to England, describing this wealth to Friends back home, central among the descriptions were those of the trees.  In a letter dated the 16th of August 1683, he writes:

“The trees of most note are the black walnut, cedar, cypress, chestnut, poplar, gumwood, hickory, sassafras, ash, beech, and oak of divers sorts, as red, white, and black, Spanish, chestnut, and swamp, the most durable of all; of all of which there is plenty for the use of man”

He goes on to write:

“The fruits that I find in the woods are the white and red mulberry, chestnuts, walnut, plums, strawberries, cranberries, huckleberries, and grapes of divers sorts”

(These extracts are from “A Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London,”)

What is the only plant that is mentioned twice?  It is the chestnut – the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), specifically.  This was a tree of such value that William Penn mentions it twice in his relatively brief letter (or ‘advertisement’ more accurately – he very much wanted people to come over and live in Pennsylvania, and so he was playing up the highlights for that cause, and so this truly was advertising) that he sent back home to England, at a time when correspondence was not as cheap as it is now, a time when every word would have been dear and measured.  Among the treasures of the new world, the chestnut shone brightly.

And through the decades, and even centuries, from William Penn’s time, the chestnut remained extraordinarily highly regarded – and it was more than just a useful tree, it was also beautiful, as this image (via the New York Public Library) from the early 19th century shows:

American Chestnut, from Francois Andre Michaux’s “North American Sylva”
Image via New York Public Library

This tree, the American chestnut, was extraordinarily valued for all it could produce, and was also extremely common.  Though estimates vary, at least a quarter, and most likely much more, perhaps up to and above two-thirds, of the trees of Pennsylvania were American chestnuts.  (NB: the American chestnut has been part of the eastern North American flora for about eight or nine thousand years or so, becoming a part of the mix shortly after oaks rose to prominence about ten or eleven thousand years ago; the oaks had in turn followed spruce/pine/birch dominated ecosystems which arrived about 13 -15,000 years ago, i.e, after the last glaciation had receded long enough to allow trees to recolonize the region; this set of timing estimations is based on palynological data, that is analysis of pollen from different strata under the ground, in such papers as M. A. Watts’ “Late Quaternary Vegetation of Central Appalachia and the New Jersey Coastal Plain” (Ecological Monographs, 49 (4): pp. 427-469 (1979) and Zhao et al’s “Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) declines at 9800 and 5300 cal. yr BP caused by Holocene climatic shifts in northeastern North America” (The Holocene 20: 877 [2010]))

The fruits, the chestnuts that is, were forefront among the valuable resources to be garnered from this plant.  As described by William Darlington in his 1837 Flora Cestrica: “The fruit of our native tree is smaller, and much sweeter, than that of the foreign one…”; and in his 1826 Florula Cestrica, he notes that “The treat which the nuts afford, for our tables, is familiarly known to everyone.”  And from the eminent botanist Francois Michaux’s “North American Sylva”. v. 3, 1810-1813 (translation 1819, Hillhouse):

“The fruit is spherical, covered with fine prickles, and stored with two dark brown seeds or nuts, about as large as the end of the finger, convex on one side, flattened on the other, and coated round the extremity with whitish down. They are smaller and sweeter than the wild chesnuts of Europe, and are sold in the markets of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.”

These nuts were of extremely high quality, and economic value, too – people would go out to parks and forests to collect them by the basket and the bushel – sometimes they would eat them, other times they would sell them, but every year they would gather them.  And other animals, in addition to humans, ate chestnuts, too – they would have been a regular supply of high energy (they are quite fatty) food for squirrels, for deer, for passenger pigeons – for all kinds of animals that need such food in the fall.  Yes, these animals would have also eaten acorns, but oak trees, from which those acorns fall, yield nuts irregularly – some years they are plentiful (in “mast years”), and in others they are not.  And so the regular supply of the chestnuts would have regularly provisioned, at a steadier pace than the oaks, these animals – animals which, in turn, would have regularly provisioned the people who ate those animals.

And there were other values to be derived from the chestnut – Michaux notes that “The wood is strong, elastic, and capable of enduring the succession of dryness and moisture” and so it was valuable for posts, rails, and shingles.

And, though its wood was not directly used for fuel (because it doesn’t burn very well), it was excellent for charcoal production.  Michaux, writing as to why people should grow more chestnut trees for charcoal:

“Besides the inducement of private gain, this measure would be attended with public benefit, by the economy of fuel, which is daily becoming scarcer and more costly”

(above quote from Francois Michaux’s “North American Sylva”. v. 3, 1810-1813 [translation 1819, Hillhouse])

Even two hundred years ago, there was concern about scarcity of energy sources, and the chestnut was seen as one of the feedstock solutions to that everpresent problem.  Chestnut is especially useful for charcoal because it can be coppiced – that is, after the top part of the tree is cut back, suckers will grow up from the root crown, making new trunks where the old one had been cut off.  This could be done every sixteen years or so, according to Michaux, to make for a renewable source of wood for coal production.

But the utility of the chestnut didn’t end with food, fuel, and housing – it even extended to clothing.  Not directly, of course – the colonists and early Americans weren’t going around dressed like Great Birnam Wood – but the bark could be, and was, used to tan leather.  Fresh leather is not, as you might expect, ready to wear.  It needs to be treated to prevent it from rotting – that is, it needs to be tanned.  And the bark of chestnut trees are rich in tannins, chemicals that interact with the proteins in leather to alter them into a form that is less digestible to microbes (that is, it makes them resistant to rotting).  And so, an early method of tanning was to take the bark of a tree rich in tannins, such as the chestnut (hemlock bark was also commonly used – more commonly than the chestnut, actually), toss that bark into a pit filled with water, let the tannins leach out of the bark and into the water, and then toss the leather into that solution, and then wait until the leather was tanned and resistant to rot, and, then… pret a porter!

This tree, the chestnut, was the five and dime of early America – the fruits were good to eat, even better than their counterparts from Europe – the wood could be used for making fences and roofs and rails – the wood could also be made into charcoal to serve evergrowing energy needs – the bark could be used for tanning leather.  It was the one stop shop for an extensive list of a colonist’s or early American’s household needs, wants, and desires.  And it was everywhere, like a Woolworth’s on every corner.

Now, however, it is not.  So what happened?

In 1904, the chestnut blight arrived.  First discovered in New York City, it rapidly spread throughout the forests of eastern North America – where ever the American chestnut was, the blight was soon to follow, as is illustrated in the following map:

“Map showing the rate at which chestnut blight spread over the Eastern United States. The dated lines show the extent of the heavy infection at the time indicated.”
From: Flippo Gravatt, 1949: Chestnut blight in Asia and North America. Unasylva, 3:2–7

The above map, and the entire text of the paper associated with it, is available here

It’s not totally clear how this disease arrived initially – it is originally from Asia, and could have come in on material imported from there to the US, but however it got here, it arrived, and was first reported from the Bronx Zoo in 1904, and within a few years it had already spread to Connecticut, to Massachusetts, to Maryland – its distribution was rapidly fanning out, like mold on an orange.

The causative agent of the blight was isolated and described shortly after the disease was discovered – William Murrill, a New York mycologist, did this in 1905, and named the disease Endothia parasitica (though we now call it Cryphonectria parasitica), but just knowing what it was, was not enough.  The disease still spread.

About ten years later, Frank Meyer, the Dutch plant explorer who worked for the US Department of Agriculture collecting plants in Asia, found this fungus in China, and then a bit later in Japan – it was found to live reasonably benignly with the chestnut species that live there, in Asia, and the geographic origin of the blight was now known.  But just knowing where it was from was not enough.  The disease still spread.

As the blight moved onward, the chestnuts died back – and other trees grew up to take their place.  This was documented in work done by, among others, Joseph Illick (Chief of Information of the Pennsylvania Department of Forest and Waters), and also other foresters such as C. F. Korstian and Paul W. Stickel, who wrote about their research in a 1927 article, “The natural replacement of blight-killed chestnut in the hardwood forests of the northeast”.  The title alone tells you the impact that Cryphonectria parasitica had.

As these researcher saw the blight remove the chestnut from the forests, they, as foresters, needed to see what trees would grow up to replace this enormously valuable tree.  Would they be replaced by class 1 desirable species?  Would they be replaced by class 3 undesirable species?  Or by species inbetween?

To find this out, they went out and looked to see what was coming in as the chestnut was going out.  And they found that the chestnuts were being replaced mostly by oaks, such as the red, white and black oaks, among others, including the chestnut oak, and also by some other kinds of trees – hickory, white ash, sugar maple, sweet (black) birch.  These trees were, mostly, what these foresters considered to be “Class 1 – Desirable species”, useful for forest products – perhaps not quite to the level of the chestnut, but useful still, for products useful to people.  And so, while the chestnut would no longer be what it once was, the forest would still be there, as would the foresters.

The chestnut was a tree that, as late as 1907, Samuel B. Green would write in his Principles of American Forestry (a book I stumbled across while perusing the stacks at the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences) was “One of the most beautiful of our forest trees.  Prefers a rich, deep soil.  A rapid grower and highly esteemed ornamental tree. Does well under cultivation.”  Shortly thereafter, this was no longer to be.

This is not to say it wholly disappeared – its wood’s durability, as noted above from Michaux, made it so that the wood lasted for decades lying in the forest, even after the trees had fallen.  And its ability to grow from suckers has made it so that it persists even to this day – suckers grow up, die back from the blight, and suckers arise once again – never getting to the size of a full size tree, but surviving nonetheless.

But the chestnut was no longer the dominant tree of the eastern North American forests.

And it wasn’t just in the woods that the chestnut was fading away – this is also a tree that had been widely planted – a tree of such value certainly would not have escaped cultivation, and it was commonly planted and grown, and a pretty inexpensive tree to buy, too.

As a visit to the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and lots of help from Janet Evans, the librarian at the McLean, lets us know – the chestnut was cheap and plentiful in the horticultural trade, as we see from its history in nursery catalogs.

In the catalogs of the Meehan’s Nursery, one of the largest nurseries of eastern North America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American chestnut trees were listed from this firm’s earliest days –

In 1858, they sold for 50 cents a piece – and in the Fall 1880 catalog, they went for 10 cents a piece, 50 cents for ten, and $3 per hundred for 1 to 2 footers, and 50 cents a piece for 6 footers – while other trees might have been as cheap, none were sold for less, attesting to the ease of propagation and volume of sale of this plant.  This continues onwards as the 19th century unfurled – in the spring of 1885 they were 50 cents a piece – the cheapest of the chestnuts listed (chinqapin, spanish, and japanese chestnuts were also listed).  In 1893 and in 1895 its price and rank were still the same.  Also, these 1890s  catalogs note: “This leads all the sorts in the quality of its nuts and its valuable timber” – the chestnut was not just some easy to grow tree, it was also supremely sublime as to the value it provided with respect to food and shelter.

It was also valued for its horticultural qualities, especially for a people who were more and more buying houses with yards to be filled with shade trees, and filled as soon as possible, hence the advertisement in the 1897/1898 Meehan’s catalog, saying of the chestnut: “It is a very rapid grower and should be given ample room.”

And onwards on – in 1900 the listing includes a mention of “Our native wild Chestnut, so well known and appreciated” – this tree appealed to patriotism as well as its many other valuable qualities.  It was an American tree – Longfellow wrote about how “Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands.”  For the homeowner at the turn towards the 20th century, they most likely would not have been a smith, except perhaps by name, but they quite likely would have been wanting to harken towards the nationalistic pride and small town imaginings to which a native American plant would have given rise.

The American chestnut continues on in the Meehan’s catalog, into the 20th century it went, setting sale just as it had in the 19th – and in the 1905 catalog, after the chestnut blight had been discovered in New York in 1904, this disease is not mentioned, they did not know what was to come.

Before I continue on, I would like to say that crucial information in the following paragraphs was supplied by Marie Long of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden; and Marty Schlabach, of the Mann Library (Cornell) in Ithaca, NY; and Lynn Stanko of the National Agricultural Library (USDA), in Washington, DC; and Kathy Allen, of the University of Minnesota’s Anderson Horticultural Library – and I was able to reach out to such talented and knowledgeable people because of Janet Evans, who made this research possible.

The loss of the American chestnut in the horticultural trade was sudden.  The last time it is listed by Meehan’s nursery is in 1911, in the fall catalog.  And then, with one bit of fade out, it is gone:

“In the Meehan’s Plant Book for 1912.  In the section on Deciduous Trees, Castanea dentata is not listed, however, in the index of that same publication, Castanea dentata is listed but asterisked with the following comment:  ‘These plants, though not described in this book, we have in stock.  Write us for descriptions, prices, etc.’ ” (Lynn Stanko, NAL)

It is not in the 1912, 1913, or 1914 catalogs – it was sold no more.

How did this happen so suddenly?  I was able to ask and answer this question quickly and efficiently because of access to great libraries – the McLean Library at PHS, as mentioned above, and also the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences with guidance, as is so often needed, by skilled librarians and archivists.

In the Academy’s collections I found Bulletin No. 1 of the Pennsylvania Chestnut Tree Blight Commission (an organization that was conveniently located on Chestnut Street, in downtown Philadelphia, by the way), which came out in October 1912.  This first bulletin was titled “The Chestnut Blight Disease – means of identification, remedies suggested and need of co-operation to control and eradicate the blight.”  It covered just what it promised and gives an overview of the chestnut problem, up to that point in time.

So what happened in 1911 that Meehan’s so suddenly stopped selling these trees?  As the above mentioned bulletin notes:

“Pennsylvania is the first State to attempt systematically to check the progress of the blight. On June 11, 1911, Governor Tener signed an Act which was passed by unanimous vote of both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature.”

And what was in that legislation that affected Meehan’s nursery?

“A quarantine on chestnut stock was declared which prohibits the shipment of nursery stock not bearing the Commission’s tag of inspection. This certificate means that the stock has been inspected in the nursery rows, and again after it has been dug. Diseased trees are destroyed, and those which are apparently healthy are immersed for several minutes in Bordeaux mixture or lime-sulphur wash [note: these are both antifungal treatments], and are then tagged by an inspector. Only a comparatively small amount of chestnut stock was shipped by the nurseries during the last fall [i.e., fall of 1911].”

Whether this legislation affected Meehan’s because their stock was infected, or if it just simply became too expensive to treat and inspect (and to take the time to do so) each plant, and to destroy suspect stock, I do not know.  But with a sudden stop, and barely an audible gasp, the American chestnut was gone from Meehan’s catalog, never to return.

There are still some chestnuts in Philadelphia.  I don’t see them as often here as I did in New England (for example, the Hapgood Wright Town Forest, in Concord, Massachusetts has loads of them – small and scrubby and infected with the blight, but there nonetheless).  I haven’t seen a single one along Cresheim Creek, a creek that runs into the Wissahickon, and divides Chestnut Hill from Mt. Airy, though I know they were there historically.  We did see one up by Forbidden Drive recently, just below Bell’s Mill Road – a scraggly shrub that Marion Homes pointed out on a Philadelphia Botanical Club visit there a few weeks ago.  And there are some that are planted here in Philadelphia – one is at Bartram’s Garden, and there are a couple at Independence Square and another at Washington Square, that Susan Edens has shown me.

But it is not the dominant tree it once was, not even close.

A few years ago, I was walking through the National Gallery, in Washington, DC, ambling around the rooms with the 19th century American paintings.  Among the Morans and the Coles and the Cropseys, was this painting, October, by William Trost Richards.  I was standing there looking at it, thinking about what plants were in that scene, and looking at the large tree on the right side of the painting – its leaves look like a beech, a tree that’s commonly seen in the woods of eastern North America, but the bark of this painted tree is extremely different from that of the beech, and so that clearly was not what this was.  I was looking at it, and looking and looking and I really just could not think of what it was – I’m reasonably familiar with the trees of the eastern forests, but this one had me stumped, so to speak.

Until I realized that it was a chestnut.  An American chestnut – a tree I had never seen before at this enormous size, or even close to it.  And I also realized that this was a scene I would never see.  I’ve been in chestnut groves in Italy, and they are majestic.  I have seen many small trees and suckers of the American chestnut, especially when I was up in New England.  But something I will never see, except in paintings, or in very old photographs, is a full grown Castanea dentata in an American forest.  It is gone, times have changed – oaks, and other kinds of trees, have filled in the space laid open by the passing of the chestnut, and so the forest remains.  But the chestnut, as the lord of the forest, does not.   It remains, yes, as a scrabbling shrub or spindly tree, but its dominance is gone, and in my lifetime, or even the lifetime of anyone born today, it will not return to its former heights.  Its place left open for others to take it, the chestnut has become a minor piece of the current sylvic puzzle – the forest remains but the trees change, and the chestnut has lost its dominance.  But the forest remains.

To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

London planes and American sycamores

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

The sophora

Fringe tree


3 thoughts on “The American chestnut

  1. Wonderful post, David! That map packs a punch. Really cool note about the art, too. There is so much history, botanical and otherwise, in old paintings. There is a woman in Italy who searches out old pear and apple trees by looking for them in old paintings of the region. Are you going to write about the work to resurrect the American chestnut? Didn’t someone find a few of them, blight free, in a top-secret place?

  2. This is a fantastic tribute to the chestnut. I’ve often wondered what the forested landscape here would look like if the blight had never happened. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who imagines that kind of scene. Thanks for posting.

  3. There are a bunch here in Morris Park here in Overbrook, very near our house. One fruited and produced seed, which we tried to propagate, with no success, not surprisingly, because no other specimen of this self sterile tree in the park produced seed. There are still some trees reaching twenty feet. If you ever want to visit Morris Park, we can show you where they are.

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