Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Chestnut Tree

Early last week, it finally happened, something it seems I’ve been waiting forever on–spring arrived.

It’s funny how you can tell the difference. We’ve had some false starts this years, some teasers, some days when the sun was shining and the air was warm enough that you could walk outside without a parka, but when you have several days of single digit temperatures, it doesn’t take much for you to feel that way. But last week, Monday or Tuesday afternoon, you just knew–it was spring.

I’ve been a little extra obsessive over the weather this year. Lord knows we’ve had some bad winters in the past (our first full year up here, standing at the bus stop in minus twenties was not uncommon), but the last few winters had felt a bit milder, so maybe this one just felt all the worse. Or maybe I’m getting older and my tolerance is shifting, it’s hard to say. I’m just happy to be able to say it: spring is here.

Now I can have a new obsession to share with you. Last fall, the organization I work for sponsored a walk led by a man from the American Chestnut Foundation, an organization that is seeking to restore the American chestnut to its natural range. I don’t know what your level of expertise is here, so I’ll tell you the quick story: the American chestnut was once one of the most numerous trees along the eastern seaboard of the United States, stretching from southern Maine all the way into Alabama and Mississippi. It was also one of the most important trees in its range, providing super-abundant food for a wide variety of species of wildlife. And it was valuable for its durable, easy-to-work-with wood–and then it was all but gone, victimized by the chestnut blight, a fungus introduced into America from Asia. Millions–maybe even billions (estimates hold there were 3 billion chestnut trees in America at one time) of chestnuts died as a result, radically changing the nature of our forests.

Not especially impressive–yet.

Fortunately, some individuals survive, though in the east, it’s rare for them to achieve any great size before succumbing to the blight. A number of people have been working hard for years trying to find ways to bring this tree back, and they’re finding reason to hope. Resistant American chestnuts have been created by breeding blight-resistant American chestnuts with Chinese chestnut, which has a much higher natural resistance to the fungus. Eventually, it is hoped to have an American chestnut that is almost ‘pure’ American that is sufficiently-blight resistant that the trees can survive and attain the size and age of their ancestors.

During the program, the leader had a handful of seedlings that had been grown. Each stood about a foot high. He gave me one, which I planted on my lawn. With spring here, I thought I’d post a picture and check on its progress from time to time. By all accounts, the American chestnut is a fast grower, and should reach flowering age in about 6 or 7 years. I’m looking forward to it.

9 Responses

  1. What a tragedy. I do hope your tree makes it. Elm trees have had a similar hard time of it here. And, of course, our mountains have been devastated by pine beetles. Entire hillsides of pine trees have been killed, turning the forests orange from all the dead trees. So, so sad.

  2. I hope the chestnuts can make a comeback!
    Spring MAY have started to arrive yesterday and today. the eaves have been dripping since yesterday morning and we can now see mud along the edges of the snowbanks!!! We're cautious but hopeful!! 🙂

  3. Enjoy your new spring! I'm missing the warmer weather down in Australia already. Winter is coming. I hope your little chestnut tree grows into something awesome! 🙂

  4. I had no idea about the blight. Playing devil's advocate, I wonder how many new species of trees have been introduced to the US in the past hundred years and have flourished.

  5. Thanks, everyone. I'll post updates from time to time.

    Lexa–One of the problems with the chestnut is it was a keystone species for many others. Its loss totally changed the nature of eastern forests here. Introduced species rarely fill the niche in quite the same way, and plenty of those cause their own problems.

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