Appalachia’s Once and Future King

chestnut narrow
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

Chestnut below the Blue Ridge Parkway


Autumn sassafras

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a small-to-medium tree found from east Texas to Maine.   Called by some the “only native spice of America,” the leaves are dried and ground to make a seasoning, first by the Choctaw and later in Louisiana Creole cuisine — where it is known as filé powder.

Various parts of the plant were long used for medicinal purposes by natives, settlers, and even in recent times.  In the 17th century, it was second only to tobacco as the top export from the Americas, and was used in Europe for scenting perfumes and soaps, and as a cure-all (which, as such things go, severely thinned the species on the landscape).   Sassafras tea, tonics and root beer are still imbibed.  These days there are many claims of health benefits as well as potential risks, and properties vary by season and part of the plant, so do your research before collecting and consuming (It is my understanding that sassafras oil contains carcinogens and its use is restricted by the FDA).

Humans aren’t the only ones to consume sassafras. Various wildlife browse sassafras in limited quantities, but many birds consume the drupes.

These trees rarely get above about 60 feet tall.  However, there is a specimen in Kentucky that measures over 100 feet, with a circumference of 21 feet.


The foliage is particularly interesting.  Each tree, and indeed each branch, will likely have three distinct leaf shapes: single lobed, mitten-shaped double lobed, and triple-lobed.  More striking to me is the bark.  I was shooting the bull with a forester who had an old grey-brown stick in the truck bed.  As we talked I idly picked it up and shaved on it with my pocketknife.  Underneath the nondescript weathered bark was an intense red color, patterned in layers and furrows.  Other specimens range from reddish-brown to orange, and can be somewhat spongy.  I’ve made some well-loved walking sticks from sassafras.

(As a complete aside, I don’t see very many staff-ready sassafras in my wanderings of the local woods.  Most are little more than sprigs before fire, woods clearing or other disturbance kills them.  When I do find them, I generally only cut one if there are already a number of stems in the vicinity.  It’s a way of protecting a species that I’d like to see more of. )   sassafras

The tree has an exotic fragrance.  I’m not good at describing smells, but I’ve heard it compared to fennel, anise or licorice.  A friend told me that he was digging into a dirt bank one hot afternoon, and he was flagging badly.  His mattock sliced into a sassafras root, and the scent – and the associations it sparked in his memory – revived him.

The Seven Sisters Oak

The southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) is a stately icon of the coastal South.  Exceptionally hard, heavy,  and difficult to work, the live oak was much used for ship in the days of tall ships;  Georgia oaks were used in the construction of the U.S.S Constitution, famously nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”  The live oak is so called because it retains its oval leaves throughout the winter.

Mighty tree

This spring I was fortunate enough to visit what is considered the largest southern live oak, named the Seven Sisters Oak.  This magnificent Louisiana tree bears seven sets of branches leading away from the center trunk and spreading to a mighty crown of 139 feet.  The limbs, each massive as the trunk a lesser oak, are decorated with Virginia creeper and resurrection ferns, and many bow gracefully to rest on the ground before rising skyward again.  The ancient trunk is just shy of 39 feet in circumference, and I expect the multiple trunks and the convoluted growth is part of the reason for the wide range in age estimates (from 300 to over 1,200 years).   I took a few photos, but the scale of such a tree really cannot be adequately captured except by standing under its canopy.

mighty tree 2The National Champion tree stands on private property near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain; the owners maintain and care for the majestic oak. I am grateful to them for their care and for allowing the public access to the tree.  I am also grateful to the generations who recognized the value of this legacy over the value of the timber or  cleared yard space.

It’s Dangerous Business, Frodo, Going Out Your Door…

“At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.”  ― Cheryl Strayed

Call me Dustin Autry.  I am a naturalist both in the professional (a wildlife biologist by training) and philosophical (a spirituality devoid of supernaturalism) senses of the term.

There are many who love nature in the abstract, but lack the access to experience or the knowledge base to fully appreciate the natural world.   I hope my thoughts and experiences will inspire you to delve further into the world around us.

My current stomping ground is the upper coastal plain of Georgia, but the whole world is fair game for my lens.  Let me know what you think.