American Chestnut

Until recently, I didn’t know that American chestnut trees, Castanea dentata, were growing in Prospect Park. Turns out some were planted in 2004. Several of these have survived, but, like the 1,400 chestnut trees killed in the park in the early 20th century, they are doomed by the chestnut blight. This fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, was accidentally introduced to the New World from Asia around 1900; New York’s great port was one of the doorways in. The blight attacks wounds in the bark and ultimately kills the plant’s cambrium, girdling the tree, essentially choking it to death.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but the American chestnut was a mainstay of the eastern hardwood forests. It’s been estimated that one in four trees in Appalachia were chestnuts. Here in the NYC region, chestnut, oaks, and hickories were the major tree species the Europeans found. Chestnuts fed people, white-tail deer, squirrels, bobwhites, turkeys, and other animals; the wood was used for everything from musical instruments to coffins; the bark was a major source of tannin. The number of trees lost to the fungus has been estimated at 4 billion. By 1940, it was mostly all over. A few trees survive on the west coast, and a few other places, and stumps still sprout here and there in the east because the root collar is fairly resistant. But the fungus is still among us, killing off the shoots eventually, and killing young planted trees.

Recently, some blight-resistant (fingers crossed?) seeds developed by the American Chestnut Foundation were presented to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Foundation has been working for decades to cross and back-cross American and blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts to get something as close genetically to the American chestnut as possible while still being resistant to the fungus. These seeds will be fostered, as it were, at the Parks Department’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island before being transplanted to Prospect and the BBG later this year or next.

When I read the City Room article, I’d never seen an American chestnut, for I was born long after their heyday. But I just didn’t want to see a bare tree, so I’ve waited a couple of weeks for the leaves to emerge. The young leaves are only about an inch long now, the teeth sharp but delicate (note the species name); the leaves can get to 7″ long, so I’ll be posting additional pictures in the coming weeks.Like many young trees, the bark is much smoother than it is in the mature tree. In this case, it is very smooth, and has a wonderful, subtle green shade that you don’t see in too many trees.

Personally, being somewhere in the middle of my life (a big presumption, that), I’ll never see the hybrids grown up. But, like, Olmsted and Vaux, who planned for a park to long survive them (with no help from entirely too many wankers through the years), I’m OK with that. Melancholy, but OK.By luck, I found a piece of one of last year’s chestnut husks. These prickly coatings cover the seeds, or nuts, or, if you’re the playful, gambling type, conkers.

12 Responses to “American Chestnut”

  1. 1 suzi smith April 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Interesting to see the American version…. the leaves & fruit husks more similar to the sweet chestnut we have in the uk… i did a series on the horse chestnut a couple of years ago which also have conkers but the leaves & husk are quite different.

    • 2 mthew April 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Most Americans who eat chestnuts probably don’t know they come from the sweet chestnut and are therefore imported. There are some ornamental sweet chestnuts here and there, though. There are a lot of horsechestnuts here, where they have long been a popular ornamental and long ago “escaped” from cultivation. Related to them (Genus Aesculus) are the buckeyes, native species like the Yellow, Ohio, etc.. The American Chestnut meanwhile, is in a completely differently family, the beech. All fascinating stuff.

  2. 3 suzi smith April 30, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    mmmm… it is fascinating!

  3. 4 Marielle May 1, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Great post, as always, Matthew! One addition, the fungus was not brought into NYC via port per se, but via nurseries in Flushing, Queens that were importing the Japanese and Chinese species. We do still have naturally occuring American chestnuts in forests around the city, especially Staten Island. Thanks for sharing!

    • 5 mthew May 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Thanks, Marielle. I I hear a rumor of an old giant tree on Governor’s Island. Know anything about that?

  4. 6 mthew May 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Governor’s Island was once full of chestnuts, oaks, and hickories. An early name of it was Nutten Island, referring to all the nuts. Some Am. chestnuts have been planted there recently, but they are youngsters. I’m still on the trail of a living old vet.

  1. 1 American Chestnut Check « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on June 11, 2011 at 7:49 am
  2. 2 American Chestnut, Prospect Park « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on November 13, 2011 at 8:07 am
  3. 3 Pulling “chestnuts” out of the etymological fire « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on September 14, 2012 at 7:50 am
  4. 4 Ode to the American Chestnut | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on October 9, 2013 at 7:25 am
  5. 5 Blighted! But… | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on May 20, 2016 at 7:05 am
  6. 6 American Chestnut | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on October 11, 2019 at 7:01 am

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