The American Chestnut

Jan 11, 2024 | Welcome Column

We’ll eat nuts cold, the chestnut flavor
For over the mountains goes the ranger
Over the mountain, the hills confound
Way of chase away, away
(Uncle Dave Macon)

Less than a month ago we celebrated Christmas. Mel Torme’s Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire may have been one of the classic songs you enjoyed for the season but many people are unaware that our American chestnut tree might not be around all that much longer.

This noble tree has been inflicted with a disease that has cut its numbers drastically over the last century. As many as four billion American chestnut trees were destroyed by a fungal blight introduced from Asia.

I first learned about the plight of the American chestnut when I stayed at a youth hostel near Snicker’s Gap, Virginia in 1994. The host, John Vassar explained to me the strange markings on the woodwork in the living room. “LOS” meant live oak standing and “WC” meant wormy chestnut. John proceeded to tell me about how the American chestnut had been decimated not only by the disease that made the wood wormy but by other diseases as well. He thought the tree was on its last legs in Michigan but maybe it could be saved in the end by crossbreeding or time. I never forgot that encounter thirty years ago now.

The traditional range of this tree overlaps Appalachia, the birthplace for much of Bluegrass, Old Time and Gospel music:

It’s a shame.The American Chestnut is such a beautiful tree and the rich brown color of its delicious nut has inspired descriptions of beauty in many of our songs:

Come up closer to me now, Your chestnut hair is touched with snow
But still it is the same dear face, I loved so well long years ago

(Carter Family)

I courted a maiden so sweet and so fair
With pearly blue eyes and with chestnut brown hair
She promised to love and said she’s be mine
But I went away leaving her there behind
(Stanley Brothers)

One of my favorite Bluegrass jam songs is Catfish John. Born a slave, he was traded for a chestnut mare.There are many varieties of chestnut. In addition to the Japanese Chestnut, whose introduction inadvertently led to the disease threat for the American Chestnut, you have for example the European Chestnut. This species was introduced to the U.S. in 1773 by none other than Thomas Jefferson. its nut is edible but the horse chestnuts I pedaled through on many a bike ride while I lived in Maryland are toxic.The American Chestnut has been a victim of several invasions. The blight introduced by Japanese Chestnuts is just a part of the tragedy. To make a long story short, our native chestnut tree has been reduced to a very small range compared to its early days. And plant biologists are making progress in figuring out how to preserve it.

If you would like to help in the effort to preserve this special species (It’s not save the whales but it does matter), check out
American Chestnut Foundation

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