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.
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.
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 (http://www.acf.org/), 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.
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.
Please contact Abbott’s Mill Nature Center at 302-422-0847 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in helping us bring the chestnut back and turn over a new leaf in this tree’s incredible story.