The Once and Future King (of the forest)?

By Jason Beale, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Towering American Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) defined much of the eastern forest from the colonial period until the early 1900’s.  Valued by humans and wildlife alike for its bountiful nuts, the tree was also used for lumber and leather tanning.

Stump-sprouting American Chestnuts, like this one at Abbott’s Mill, are typical of most remaining trees, which once constituted more than 25% of the eastern forest. This specimen may be over a hundred years old as it continually battles blight.  Photo by Jason Beale.

The eastern forest was forever changed when an Asian fungus, tolerated by Chinese and Japanese Chestnuts, began its uncontrollable spread in 1904.  By the 1930’s, the American Chestnut was rendered ecologically extinct, with trees  killed outright or condemned to decades of attempted regrowth.  It’s shrubby native cousin, the Chinquapin, also suffered from the blight.  The impact on wildlife, forests, and many rural communities was devastating.


Chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) attacking a sprout. This sac fungus will kill off the trunk, while the tree will continue to send up new shoots.  Photo by Ed Crawford.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the stump-sprouting chestnuts have inspired people to help restore the chestnut to its former ecological role.  The American Chestnut Foundation (, founded in 1983, has worked diligently to protect remaining chestnuts that show a degree of blight-resistance and has embarked on an extensive project to hybridize American trees with Chinese specimens.  Generations of backcrossing with American specimens have yielded a tree that is approximately 94% American and expected to show a high degree of blight-resistance.  These “BC3F3” trees may be the pioneers that bring thriving chestnuts back to our forests.


Dr. Gary Carver, Pres. of the Maryland Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, provides ID tips for distinguishing American and Chinese traits in hybrid and backcrossed trees.  Photo by Jason Beale.

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford, Delaware features remnant American Chestnuts, Chinquapins, and the remnants of a former Chinese Chestnut plantation.  Inspired by the story of the chestnut and coupled with  ongoing habitat restoration projects, Abbott’s Mill staff toured Maryland’s American Chestnut Society Chapter’s restoration projects.  We returned and planted four saplings from a surviving American Chestnut (known as a mother tree) as the first step in working with TACF to restore chestnuts in Delaware along with an interpretive trail highlighting the natural and cultural history of the tree.


This ~50 ft. “survivor” tree in Maryland provides hope that the American Chestnut could return to the eastern forest.  Photo by Jason Beale.

Please contact Abbott’s Mill Nature Center at 302-422-0847 or if you are interested in helping us bring the chestnut back and turn over a new leaf in this tree’s incredible story.

2 thoughts on “The Once and Future King (of the forest)?”

  1. i know you are in milford…i am wondering what species of chesnuts are in rockford park in wilmington…perhaps 3 or 4 of them near the top of the sledding hill steps and across the park road toward rockford tower on the woods edge…definitely chesnuts….prickley casings opened and the squirrels have their banquet…sure they are not american chestnuts…look healthy….thanks…maybe the hockessin dns folks would know if you don’t ??

  2. Mary Lou: There are certainly small American Chestnut sprouts and some small trees left in northern Delaware forests. I come across them sometimes. Apparently, they bear fruit when they are stressed from disease. I knew of one tree in nearby PA that was about 35 feet tall and about 10 inches in diameter at the base. Recently it has died back, but sprouted from the base. If you collect a leaf, we can identify it for you.

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