Along with the hardwood the trees provided, the chestnut was important for both humans and livestock - not only eaten, chestnuts were a cash crop for people in the Appalachians because street vendors in big cities sold them fresh-roasted to passers by. It's in The Christmas Song!
What went wrong? It seems that in 1904 an imported tree brought with it the Asian bark fungus Cryphonectria parasitica (formerly Endothia parasitica). In efforts to curb the spread of the blight, some logging was also likely accelerated, killing off trees which had sufficient resistance and preventing any chance at herd immunity.
In the last half century, tree experts have tried to make more resistant versions of the American chestnut tree but cross-breeding hasn't worked so this is an instance where environmentalists are behind doing some genetic modification, because nature has basically killed the thing. The approach in the past, cross-breeding 'organically', would just leave us with a Chinese chestnut tree, but selectively eliminating all of the Chinese characteristics except for blight resistance science can make an American chestnut tree that is immune to the fungus but is in all other respects the original. It takes time, though, and a little bit of money.
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 and is a 501(c) 3 organization headquartered in Asheville, NC devoted to bringing the American chestnut tree back to Appalachia - it is estimated 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were once American Chestnut. If you're looking for a non-traditional gift, you can visit www.acf.org and a donation for them will also get a subscription to The Journal of The American
Chestnut Foundation and some chestnuts for planting.
Until we have American chestnut trees back, you can still enjoy Mel Torme and Judy Garland singing about the nuts, since you are probably enjoying European Sweet Chestnut this season instead:
- Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Will Help Restore The Decimated, Iconic Tree
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- Global Warming Causes More Interbreeding Between Natives And Invaders
- Asian Longhorned Beetle Puts New England Maple Trees At Risk