Chestnuts are available at local farmers' markets now. The sight of them whets the appetite for that special chestnut dressing that accompanies the Thanksgiving turkey, so put some into the freezer for next month’s feasting. We are lucky to be able to buy this delectable treat considering the devastation of the towering American chestnut tree beginning a hundred years ago.
Once one of the mightiest of American trees, feeding the livestock of Appalachian farmers and furnishing their homes and livelihoods, the chestnut was struck by a foreign blight in 1904 and over the next four decades all but disappeared from the landscape. It is estimated that 3-4 billion chestnut trees (1/4 of all hardwood trees) ranged throughout the eastern United States at one time, while today fewer than 100 remain, including one in Patrick County. (Are there any closer to home?)
The good news, however, is that research to restore the chestnut is ongoing and beginning to bear fruit. A farm in Meadowview, in our own backyard, is the site of The American Chestnut Foundation’s research station where promising progress in backcross breeding has been made. Scientists determined to resurrect this majestic tree have employed hypovirulence (infecting the infection) and gene technology, among other techniques, in a variety of locales including Virginia Tech and institutions in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.
With grace and a flair for conveying the colorful personalities central to this drama, Susan Freinkel, in American Chestnut: the life, death, and rebirth of a perfect tree, tells the captivating story of the chestnut, its importance in the economy and culture of the Appalachian region, and the many efforts of diehard optimists to bring the tree back in spite of naysayers and limited financial support. Freinkel is an absolutely marvelous writer and describes the science of the research very effectively for the non-scientifically inclined. This is an interesting and absorbing account for anyone who enjoys nature, botany, or the history of the Appalachian region, and would make a lovely gift.
For a local perspective on the importance of chestnuts, read Ralph H. Lutts’ article, “Like Manna from God: the American chestnut trade in southwestern Virginia (PDF)”, published in Environmental History.
A number of other interesting articles on the American chestnut are accessible through the library’s online subscription service Find It VA.
The appeal of chestnut for timber and nut production prompted importation and experimentation in the U.S. beginning over 200 years ago. In 1773, Thomas Jefferson grafted European chestnut cuttings onto American chestnuts at Monticello. When E. I. Du Pont de Nemours moved from France to New Jersey in 1799 and then to Delaware in 1802, he planted European chestnuts for himself, and gave them to friends. Japanese chestnuts were first imported in 1876. A decade later, Luther Burbank bought 10,000 nuts from Japan, and sold seedlings by mail-order. With these Asian varieties came a blight to which they were resistant but which decimated the native American tree population by 1950.
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 by a group of plant scientists who recognized the severe impact the demise of the American chestnut tree imposed upon local rural economies and eastern forest ecology. The American chestnut tree was the single most important food source for a variety of wildlife from bears to birds. Rural communities depended upon the annual nut harvest as a cash crop to feed livestock. The chestnut lumber industry was a major sector of rural economies because the wood was ideal for fence posts, railroad ties, barn beams and home construction, as well as for furniture and musical instruments.
In 1989 TACF established the Wagner Research Farm, a breeding station at Meadowview, to execute the backcross breeding program developed by Philip Rutter, David French and Charles Burnham, three of TACF’s founding scientists. TACF’s backcross breeding program took Chinese chestnut trees, naturally resistant to the blight, and crossed them with their American cousins, resulting in trees that were 50% American, 50% Chinese. These trees were then backcrossed to the American species, resulting in trees which were 75% American. The procedure was repeated to produce an American chestnut tree that retains no Chinese characteristics other than blight resistance. Three additional farms acquired by 2006 brought Meadowview Research Farms to a stock of over 30,000 trees at various stages of breeding, planted on over 160 acres of land.
Tours of the Meadowview chestnut project are usually given during the Virginia Highlands Festival in August, and may be offered at other times as well.
A complete history of The American Chestnut Foundation can be found in Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut Anthology. This profusely illustrated collection includes memories of “Chestnuts in My Life” by Jimmy Carter, articles on the uses of chestnut wood, nut nutrition, and lively portraits of plant scientists engaged in reviving the American chestnut, among them Fred Hebard, director of the Meadowview Research Farms.
The chestnuts we buy today are probably from Chinese or Japanese chestnut trees, or perhaps a cousin of the American chestnut, the chinquapin. Whatever the source, good chestnuts are sweet and tasty. Unlike other nuts, chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and low in fat. You can eat them fresh, boiled, or roasted. They make good snacks, appetizers, vegetable dishes, or soup. They can be dried and ground to flour for use in pancakes, breads and pasta. Find recipes and commercial sources at www.wcga.net.
For more about the history of the American chestnut, visit us at www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.