200 million acres of chestnut trees — gone!

Posted by | February 5, 2007

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<p>“Under the spreading chestnut tree…” begins a Longfellow poem widely familiar to 19th century readers.  But the mighty American chestnut, once king of the eastern forests, took a hard hard fall in the first half of the 20th century.</p>
<p>Castanea dentata was once the most prolific tree in the eastern forest, spreading out over some 200 million acres in and around the Appalachian region.  It was truly a money tree, the driving force behind lucrative industries in lumber and produce. Its wood was unsurpassed for building. Because it grew straighter and stronger than other trees, chestnut was the finest lumber money could buy, and was far more rot-resistant than other types of wood.  Rising hundreds of feet in the forest canopy, chestnut branches were home to birds, and its nuts were an endless food source for both man and animal. </p>
<p>“There were more chestnut trees on Lookout Mountain than there were anything else,” William Raoul (b. 1911) said in describing the woods of his boyhood in east Tennessee. One ridge on the mountain was called “The Hog’s Back”–not an uncommon name for a ridge in those days, yet this particular hog’s spine was literally spiked with chestnut trees. </p>
<p>With a lifespan averaging 400 years, the American chestnut was invincible–or so it seemed.  In the late 1800s, some well-meaning growers imported chestnut trees from Japan and China. They planned to crossbreed the trees, producing a composite tree with the American size and the Asian chestnuts.</p>
<p>But those grand plans fell apart when the American trees became infected with the deadly fungus scientists call Cryphonectria parasitica, first sighted in New York City in 1904.</p>
<p>The blight moved southward through the eastern United States at a rate of some 50 miles a year. Its progression down the Appalachian forest was all too apparent as it left millions of trees withering in its wake. By the 1930s, the fungus had moved into Georgia, and by the 1940s, ravaged ridges were all that remained of the once-dense chestnut ranges. What was arguably the forest’s best and brightest tree was gone–reduced to a gray and ghostly skeleton.</p>
<p>Ellen Mason Exum<br />“Amercian Forests”<br />Nov. 1, 1992</p>
<div class=Tech Tags: appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia appalachian+mountains+history

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