The American chestnut was all but destroyed by fungal blight and logged as settlements spread west when the United States was settled by Europeans. But lately, it’s making a comeback. Endangered for years, the American chestnut is now being appreciated for its many helpful characteristics in cultivated permaculture gardens and its value as a historical tree that anchored entire ecosystems. Americans are embracing the great chestnut like never before.
What is the American chestnut?
Why do we love the American chestnut? Well, it’s the tree version of quinoa, to create a very bad analogy. Chestnut trees are the gardener’s version of the perfect protein. They help shade and encourage other plants, create edible fruit that lasts for generations, which can also be ground for flour and their wood is used for furniture that is unparalleled in beauty. They can also be planted in locations that are transitioning from open fields back to forest, which makes them a very helpful tree to have around for gardeners or farmers reclaiming abandoned fields.
The American Chestnut Foundation is on a mission the last 40 years to reintroduce this fascinating and multifaceted tree to its native range in the eastern U.S. Once prolific through Appalachia and down the east coast, the American chestnut is now little more than a note in the history books. But that can change. Here is what is being done and how you can help.
How to reintroduce an endangered tree species
Using scientific strategies, the American Chestnut Foundation is attempting to spread chestnut trees across the eastern U.S. using breeding, biotechnology and biocontrol.
According to the American Chestnut Foundation, it is taking a holistic approach toward chestnut restoration, utilizing a three-pronged research strategy known as 3BUR (Breeding, Biotechnology and Biocontrol United for Restoration). These are techniques for researching ways of reintroducing the American chestnut to help it spread across its native habitat as quickly as possible. The goal is to ask scientists and the public for assistance in replanting these traditional trees of the American landscape.
Identifying American chestnut trees
Originally, American chestnuts were cut down and decimated by chestnut blight. Many trees in North America today that look like American chestnuts are Chinese chestnuts or hybrids between Chinese chestnuts and American chestnuts, which made them resistant to the blight.
You can identify an American chestnut tree by looking at the shape and thickness of the leaves, dentation and luster of the leaves, angle of the leaf base, shape and color and hairiness of the buds, the presence and shape of stipules, the characteristics of the stem and so on. It’s quite involved.
A typical American chestnut has a thin, canoe-shaped leaf with a dull leaf surface and hooked or “breaking ocean wave” dentation on the leaf edges. Buds are often red or orange, smooth and pyramid shaped, protruding from the stem at a 45-degree angle. The nuts are released in spiky burs that must be collected off the ground while wearing thick leather gloves. The nuts can be roasted or stored.
You can help plant chestnut trees on your property, or have trees identified on your property that could be chestnuts using this handy chestnut tree identification guide. Or send in a sample to a local agricultural department that can identify chestnut trees. Tree samples are used in a dentataBase database to track inventory of wild trees.
Local chapters of the American Chestnut Foundation reach out to sample submitters to discuss next steps on maintaining or propagating chestnuts trees on their property. Trees may be candidates for harvesting open pollinated seed or for planned controlled pollination. Nuts of wild trees are planted in conservation orchards. Samples can also be used to identify the native range areas that have genetic diversity or less, which helps the program plan how to repopulate the species to its native range.
How to use chestnuts in your garden
Chestnut trees are slow growing, but last for generations. Though most were wiped out by the chestnut blight fungus, the remaining American chestnut trees are hardy and multi-purposed, both in fruit and wood and for cultivating a permaculture garden. Similar to an apple tree, you can grow a chestnut tree starting the size of a bush, and plant other shade-loving plants underneath that couldn’t otherwise survive an open field. Over time, the tree grows into a larger canopy, and a field can be reclaimed as functional food-producing forest planted around with other crops and trees.
That’s because you can plant a chestnut and wait a few years for it to grow nuts. In the meantime, use it as shade for low-lying plants of many other kinds. It can be quite challenging to grow some gardens from scratch in full sun. Even trees struggle to gain a foothold in scorching hot, dry field conditions common in today’s climate change-riddled American north.
The chestnut is one of those trees that supports other plants growing under and around it. It can help permaculture enthusiasts transition abandoned farm land back to productive food forests with slow transition from full-sun field crops to a gradual adjustment over to shaded forest garden. Plant herbs, low-lying fruits plants like raspberries, greens and other plants under a chestnut bush. As it grows, shift that to larger fruit trees and plants until you have a full air-cooling forest back in production that can be selectively harvested for wood, fruit, vegetables and herbs, or even mushrooms from fallen logs.
Chestnuts can grow in climate zones four to eight and need a winter chill of 300 to 750 hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Trees grown from seed can take nearly 20 years to grow to production, so most trees bought from nurseries are grafted. These massive trees can grow 50 to 100 feet tall, producing nuts used for roasting and flour and wood that makes beautiful sturdy furniture. Chestnuts also attract pollinators and are easy to grow in moderate temperature zones because they are native to that habitat.
Images via Pexels