Before 1904, over 4 Billion American Chestnut trees were growing in the Appalachian Mountains. The American Chestnut was fundamental to the livelihood of the indigenous and settlers of the Appalachian Mountains.
Indigenous tribes would burn and clear the forest to favor the growth of chestnuts. The American Chestnut was used for food, medicine, kindling, and woodworking.
The tree was essential to survival in the mountains of the Appalachian, and then in 1904, an infection was brought over, and over 40 years, it killed 4 billion chestnut trees. Many say it was the loss of the Chestnut that destroyed Appalachia.
The American Chestnut is a deciduous tree native to North America, primarily the Appalachian Mountain range. The tree grew rapidly, and the American Chestnut dominated the Appalachian mountains when the European settlers first arrived in the New World.
The tree was vital in the growth of wildlife, as it was a huge food source for animals and humans. It also contained nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium, which helped the tree grow and enriched the soil for other plants to grow in the mountains.
When the settlers discovered the Chestnut Tree, it was one of the most valuable woods for building houses; it resisted rot and was the perfect material for furniture, fences, and shipmasts. The acid in the wood prevented decay.
This is also why many of the old structures are still standing today. It was often called ¨the redwood of the East¨as it was the largest tree in eastern North America--averaging 100-105 feet, and the average trunk diameter 5-8 feet wide.
The indigenous and European Americans benefited from the Chestnut. The chestnuts were roasted and ground into flour, and the farmers allowed their pigs to eat them in the forest and the pigs would come back healthy just in time for butchering.
The tannins from the wood were used to tan leather products. The chestnut logs were best for heating a house; the Chestnut would keep an even heat and didn't smoke, keeping a home warm at night and not smokey.
The leaves of the chestnut tree were boiled into broth and used for coughs. Unfortunately, the loss of the Chestnut tree also coincided with the great depression.
The destruction of the American Chestnut
In 1904, Chestnut blight arrived in New York City. The blight was thought to come from an imported nursery stock of Castanea crenata from Japan. However, further research discovered that the American Chestnuts on Long Island had been infected as early as 1893.
However, the infection arrived by 1906. The blight affected trees in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia and was spreading rapidly. The government's efforts to eradicate the disease failed, and the trees continued dying throughout Appalachia.
Blight is a wind-borne fungal spore, and it can invade the tree through cracks or openings in the bard, killing the cambium and, eventually, the entire tree. The roots can survive, but when the tree tries to sprout, the blight kills the sprouts. Within 40 years, a species that had survived 40 million years was wiped out.
At least 4 billion chestnut trees were thought to be destroyed during the 20th century. To this day, it remains one of the greatest Ecological Disasters in the history of Appalachia.
How did this affect those living in Appalachia?
The trees served as a critical species in the Appalachian mountains, and when they were gone, the biome was affected. It was a primary food source for many animals and humans. Many written accounts record that a way of life had vanished along with the trees.
When there were no chestnuts to collect and sell in the local town, there was no income to sustain their life. According to Historian Steven Stoll, nutritional deficiencies slowly developed in the people, and they were never poor until they lost their ecological base.
An essential key to their survival had been removed. To those who lived in Appalachia, the Chestnut tree was the Tree of Life, as the chestnut tree sustained the communities that grew up around them.
Is there hope for the future of the American Chestnut tree?
Even though the trees are essentially absent from the forest, there is still a small population, and conservatism is working to regrow the American chestnut population. The American Chestnut Foundation, founded in 1983, hopes to develop a new variety of Chestnut resistant to pathogens.