Discovering an almost Extinct American Chestnut Tree

In the early part of the Twentieth Century, over three billion American Chestnut trees covered the forests from Georgia to Maine. These trees were so large that they were called the Redwoods of the East. Some trunks were measured at over 18 feet in diameter.

American Chestnut giants
This photo is from 1907 in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina.

And then, the infamous Chestnut blight struck down almost every one of those three billion trees, and within fifty years, the American Chestnut was almost eliminated.

Shelton-Family-Chestnut Tree
This 1920 photograph of the Shelton family in Western North Carolina shows a bohemoth that had already died. A tree that had helped to build America and was part of our folklore had disappeared from the forest in the blink of an eye.

american-chestnut botanical

This morning during my daily walk, I came upon hundreds of “sea urchin” looking pods covering a large portion of ground. All of them had sharp spines, but some were green, and had opened to reveal small nut like kernels. Others were still closed and had turned a dark brownish purple. In the five years I have lived in this remote area between Lake Lure and Asheville, I had never seen anything like them. I carried a number of them back home to photograph, and to search for on the internet.

American Chestnut Pods

American Chestnut pod nuts
This is a detailed view of the nuts inside the burr.

To my complete surprise, I discovered that they were American Chestnuts, and they fell from a tree that survived the blight.

American Chestnuts
These are nuts that I removed from a few of the hundreds of burrs lying on the ground. As you can see, they are not very developed, and you would be hard pressed to extract any pulp from them.

I have contacted the American Chestnut Foundation in Asheville, and they have confirmed that the burrs and nuts are American Chestnut, but the nuts appear to be non-viable. That would mean that a male tree is not present that could pollinate the female tree that produced these burrs and nuts.

chestnut nuts in burr
This is how the nuts should appear inside the burr.

chestnut another handful (1)
The nuts should have this robust appearance if they are viable, or, capable of producing a tree.

They plan to examine the tree, and possibly use pollen from the spring flowers to cross pollinate fungus resistant varieties from the Far East, eventually giving them a fungus resistant tree that is 94% American Chestnut. Stay tuned…..

About 2,500 chestnut trees are growing on 60 acres near West Salem, Wisconsin, which is the world’s largest remaining stand of American chestnut. These trees are the descendants of those planted by Martin Hicks, an early settler in the area. In the late 1800s, Hicks planted less than a dozen chestnuts. Planted outside the natural range of chestnut, these trees escaped the initial onslaught of chestnut blight, but in 1987, scientists found blight in the stand. Scientists are working to try to save the trees.

Two of the largest surviving American chestnut trees are in Jackson County, Tennessee. One, the state champion, has a diameter of 24 inches and a height of 75 feet, and the other tree is nearly as large. One of them has been pollinated with hybrid pollen by members of The American Chestnut Foundation; the progeny will have mostly American chestnut genes and some will be blight resistant.

On May 18, 2006, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources spotted a stand of several trees near Warm Springs, Georgia. One of the trees is approximately 20–30 years old and 43 feet tall and is the southernmost American chestnut tree known to be flowering and producing nuts.

As you can see, these relics of a time past are very rare, and it’s possible that the tree I discovered might contribute to a small gene pool of resistant trees.

7 thoughts on “Discovering an almost Extinct American Chestnut Tree

  1. Several of our neighbor’s have chestnut trees. I read somewhere that they generally die before eaching their full height. They once covered the mountains and in spring when they bloomed, it looked like the mtn.s were blanketed in snow. So very sad!

  2. That is a neat story Vann……..I remember my principle in Jr. HS always quoted a poem “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree The Village Smithy stands”. Funny how one thing spurs your old forgotten memories.



  3. Hi Vann, I live in MA and a similar thing happened to me. My boyfriend actually noticed the sea urchin-like pods on the ground. When I opened the spiny pod I found tiny nuts that were shriveled and about the size of a pea. Have there been any developments with this project?

  4. Great read. Thank you for taking the time to show and tell this snippet of chestnut tree history and current news. Raised in the northwest mountains of New Jersey back in the day and miss this part of it. : )

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