One of the most compelling parts of The Overstory is the story of the American chestnut that grows on the Hoel farm, safe from the blight sweeping the trees in the northeast. Readers may want to know whether or not the American chestnut is actually extinct or not, so we will take a look at the history and at what is currently going on with this majestic specimen.
It is estimated that there were once four billion American chestnut trees in the eastern United States. Known as the “redwoods of the East,” they were large (with diameters exceeding 12 ft), tall (many reached 100 ft in height), and grew quickly. They had rot-resistant, lightweight, and straight-grained wood, and nuts that fed billions of other species. It was often used during the colonial period for log cabins and for animals to fatten themselves by foraging for nuts before the market. The naturalist Donald Culross Peattie said that the forest from afar looked like “a sea with white combers plowing across its surface.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, the introduction of Cryphonectria parasitica utterly decimated the tree. This fungal pathogen, usually referred to as the “chestnut blight,” was accidentally imported from Asia and was first detected in New York in 1904. It enters the tree through an injury in its bark, then spreads to the underlying vascular cambium and wood. These tissues are killed off as it advances, and eventually all nutrients are choked off to and from the tree above the infection. The destruction was all but complete by the 1950s. The Christian Science Monitor writes of the devastation: “The blight spread from New York, devastating eastern forests. By 1945, the year Mel Tormé and Bob Wells wrote about roasting chestnuts on an open fire, some 4 billion trees were gone. In southern Appalachia, the blight destroyed a way of life. Striking during the Great Depression, it ended many people’s ability to live off the land, driving them into wage labor, often in the coal mines.” However, the article adds, “in a sense, both the trees and those who lived off of them were forced underground. Because microbes in the soil kill the fungus, many of the trees’ root systems survived, awaiting the day when the blight would no longer afflict them.”
According to the American Chestnut Foundation, the tree has not gone extinct but is “considered functionally extinct by the USDA because the blight fungus does not kill the tree’s root system underground. The American chestnut has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites, but inevitably succumb to the blight and die back to the ground.”
There is currently a modicum of hope, however. The American Chestnut Foundation is close to making a blight-resistant American chestnut. American Forests explained in 2010, “This planting, at a place fittingly known as Chestnut Ridge, will intersperse the chestnuts with other native species—white pine, red oak, black cherry, sugar maple—‘the first attempt to see how they compete in a real-world situation,” says Sara Fitzsimmons, another chestnut researcher at Penn State . . . While the Chestnut Foundation’s new, resistant trees are the first soldiers to be deployed against the blight, other ongoing programs could soon bear fruit: a chestnut genetically engineered for blight resistance; genetically altered strains of the blight fungus itself that weaken it; and, farther from success, breeding a pure native with resistance by crossing old survivor chestnuts to one another.” Testing is continuing to take place and the conversation has moved on to regulation. Approval from the USDA, Food and Drug Administration, and the EPA is necessary, and William Powell, one of the scientists spearheading the project, hopes to secure it by 2020.