Searching for the American Chestnut in the Library of Congress

This is a guest blog by Mary Ellen Hawkins, Teaching with Primary Sources Intern at the Young Reader’s Center and Programs Lab. For information on this intenship opportunity, please follow this link.

To celebrate Arbor Day today this year,  maybe you and your family will go for a nature walk around your neighborhood or the local park to learn about the trees around you. Which ones are family favorites? What trees are native to your area? Did you know that there used to be a species of tree native to the East Coast which could grow over 100 feet tall? The American Chestnut tree, as tall as a 10-story building and numbering in the billions, used to feed thousands of people and animals every year.

If we wanted to see an old-growth American Chestnut tree (castanea dentata) in person, we would have to go back 100 years or so. Before the 1900s, this tree grew in eastern forests from Maine to Florida. Because it was so commonplace, it supported a large ecosystem. The tree’s wood was valuable for making furniture and building materials. This botanical illustration of a Sweet Chestnut can give you an idea of what an American Chestnut looks like. The spiky ball is called a burr and it protects the nutritious chestnut inside. These fed countless animals, including humans, who would eagerly await the season to go “chestnutting” and stuff their bags full every fall.

(Left) Bidwell, Adell C. “A Chestnuttibg Together,” 1874. (Right) Reed, E. Clark “Opening the Chestnut Burr,” 1884.

“Chestnutting” was so popular that it inspired many songs. This song, “A Chestnutting Together,” is about a romance blooming in the forest. Life’s problems are compared to the struggle of opening a chestnut burr in “Opening the Chestnut Burr.”

So what happened to this mighty, beloved tree? In 1904, an alarm sounded from the Bronx Zoo in New York, NY. They observed a new fungal disease, or a “blight,” that afflicted the American Chestnut tree and spread very quickly. This newspaper headline from 1912 reads, “All Chestnut Trees in America Threatened,” and shows how urgent the situation became in a very short time.

[The sun (New York [N.Y.]), January 14, 1912]

People of all ages were invested in saving the American Chestnut. The Boy Scouts of America joined the effort by marking and reporting infected trees. State governments ordered infected trees to be cut down, creating wide swaths of empty forest. Unfortunately, these efforts did not slow down the spread.

Within 20 years, the chestnut blight had killed the majority of American Chestnut trees, leaving behind groves of dead trees (nicknamed “ghost forests”).

[97. Catalog B, Higher Plants, 200 2 American Chestnut Tree, Negative No. 6032 (Photographer and date unknown) THIS GHOST FOREST OF BLIGHTED CHESTNUTS ONCE STOOD APPROXIMATELY AT THE LOCATION OF THE BYRD VISITOR CENTER. – Skyline Drive, From Front Royal, VA to Rockfish Gap, VA , Luray, Page County, VA]

In the absence of the tree’s bounty of food, many animals were unable to survive. Listen to Howard Miller of Drews Creek, WV share his recollections of this period of scarcity. He says that the animals “depended on the chestnuts when I was young…when they didn’t find any chestnuts, they just starved.” Some animals, like raccoons and turkeys, had to be brought in from other states and reintroduced to eastern forests. It took a long time for the forest ecosystem to recover and for its residents (animals and humans alike) to adjust to a new reality.

While the loss of the tree is tragic, there is some hope to this story. The blight, while deadly, does not attack the root system and the tree is not extinct. Millions of sprouts still grow in the tree’s native range, but they are unable to grow larger than a shrub before the blight attacks again. Other native nut trees, like the Chinquapin, survived, and other kinds of chestnut trees were introduced from Europe and Asia.

Modern-day scientists hope to reintroduce a blight-resistant American Chestnut tree to eastern woodlands, bringing back the tree that supported American life for centuries and was loved by its people.  Perhaps someday the American Chestnut will grow tall, and we can go “chestnutting” together once again.

 

To Learn More beyond the Library:

  1. Check out the American Chestnut Foundation’s website to learn more about the efforts to restore the American Chestnut: https://acf.org/
  2. To read about the tree from an indigenous perspective, read this article from Indian Country Today: https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/life-death-life-american-chestnut

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