Heirloom Expert: Chestnut Trees

One reader wonders how rare chestnut trees can really be since so many are alive and thriving.

  • The American Chestnut Foundation is hopefully close to finding a blight-resistant American chestnut.
    Photo by Fotolia/goodween123

I was touring a convent built in the 1800s and our tour guide pointed out that most of the wood used was chestnut and explained how the tree is basically gone now. I see chestnut trees all the time and there are plenty of chestnuts in the stores. I don’t get it.

The American chestnut tree was almost wiped out by a blight discovered in the early 1900s. The varieties sold in stores and catalogs are Chinese chestnuts. The American chestnut tree grew straight, was easy to work and provided a reliable crop of nuts each season. Legend has it that a young George Washington had to dismount while riding across Chestnut Ridge in Pennsylvania due to a thick layer of nuts and husks on the ground.

The tree ranged over 200 million acres in the east from Maine to Florida. It’s estimated that about 4 billion trees were lost to the blight.

The good news is the American Chestnut Foundation is hopefully close to finding a blight-resistant American chestnut. It’s been bred using a technique called backcrossing, using the Chinese chestnut and selecting for American characteristics. The resulting tree should be 15/16ths American. The foundation hopes that some day the forests of the east will be filled with this historic tree once again.

Doug is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Backyard Gardener and co-host of The Organic Gardeners radio program on KDKA.

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