Appalachia’s Once and Future King

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Chestnut sprouting from the base of a dead trunk, Appalachian Trail

The story of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a tale of tragedy and endurance.  Found in every state east of the Mississippi, the chestnut dominated the mountains and uplands of the Appalachians; some estimate one in four mountain hardwood trees were chestnuts.  It was a keystone species of its ecosystem. The prodigious supply of nuts provided food for wildlife and woodsmen alike, and an economic boon for mountain folk (sold nationwide, and especially popular at Christmas).  Chestnut wood was strong and rot resistant, an ideal material for rail fence, bridge and cabin. The fallen leaves decomposed into nutrient-rich humus to build up the thin mountain soils.  The mighty American chestnut was the king of the mountains.

But in 1904, a Japanese bark fungus turned up in New York City.  Called the “chestnut blight,” the pathogen infects the cambium, forming cankers and eventually girdling the tree.  The spores travel by wind, animal, or automobile, and by around 1950 the disease had swept the entire range, killing nearly every mature tree.  Only few survivors , outliers of the tree’s normal range,  still stand tall.  Yet the species  persists  in hill and hollow to this day. When stressed, the chestnut reacts by coppicing – sending up shoots from the roots or stump.  These new saplings from old roots rise up, but seldom grow more than a few inches in diameter before the blight strikes them down again. But the roots stir and twigs rise once more. So the cycle continues.

Last weekend, I drove a short ways along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road which winds through the mountains in North Carolina and Virginia.  Along the way there are many overlooks where one can park and enjoy the vistas.  Nature being loathe to stand still, the vistas are eventually screened as saplings reach skyward.  At one of these I saw where, two or three years previously, the Park Service chainsawed a swath of trunks that threatened the view.   At the bottom of the steep limb-strewn clearing, among the bottles, cans and other human detritus, a few sprigs of a chestnut tree clung to life.  Construction of the Parkway coincided with the blight’s appearance in North Carolina, so it is possible this individual was cut by the road crew before the fungus got to work on it.  Of course, the blight felled it each time it resprouted since then.

There are many small, aged survivors scattered throughout the eastern highlands, remnants of the 3-4 billion trees that dominated the  hill-mantling forests prior to the 20th century.  I will not see their ascendance in my lifetime, but hope they will one day take back their place as kings of the forest.

For More Information:

Follow the links given in the wiki page for American chestnut.

Here is a presentation on efforts to restore the American chestnut.

The Saga of the American Chestnut

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Chestnut below the Blue Ridge Parkway

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