On the American Chestnut: Can the king of the forest regain his throne?

Essay By Hank Nuwer. Published in Fireside Companion

Once upon a time, the king of the forest lay dying. He had been king for a long, long time. So beloved was he that everyone thought he would always be king. But one day, a foreign enemy struck him down. His sad subjects tried to help him, but not even the kingdom’s most honored sages could concoct a potion that would restore his health. Many, many years passed. The time had come that nearly everyone had lost faith, believing that the king’s life was over. But in the darkest hour, a wise old man humbly offered his help. He used the knowledge he had gained in his own long lifetime to help the dying king. Once more, hope returned to the wilderness. Everyone prayed the king would live forever.

            The preceding, modern-day fable is now being spun in the American heartland. The American chestnut (Castanea dentate) – once nicknamed the “king of the forest” and “the Eastern redwood” because trees often stood 110 feet tall and displayed a crown of quivering leaves more than 100 feet wide – has a fighting chance to come back from oblivion. The villain in this story is a deadly fungus brought into the United States from the Orient approximately 90 years ago. The hero – and who would have thought the old man to have had so much optimism in him? – is Charles R. Burnham, a lean, quick-to-chuckle octogenarian.

Burnham was 76 in 1980 and retired from the University of Minnesota (St. Paul campus) professorship he’d held from 1938 until 1972, when he thrust himself into a role as the champion of the long-beleaguered chestnut. Joining forces with Philip Rutter, a maverick scientist who performs serious research without a doctorate, Burnham hoped to overcome his lack of financial and moral support from government agencies to pull off a genetic coup worthy of the great American plant breeder, Luther Burbank. The two incorporated an organization called the American Chestnut Foundation in 1983, which they dedicated to restoring their beloved tree. The organization now boasts more than 1,000 members.

Burnham, an acknowledged authority on the uses of chromosome translocation, had scarcely any firsthand contact with chestnuts during his long career other than being appalled by stands of dead trees he saw during a teaching stint at West Virginia University in the early1930s. Those grisly and lonely skeletons, however, left an indelible mark on his soul. “I noticed they weren’t completely dead,” he recalled. “Many of them had flowers, so I knew they were a source of pollen.”

Burnham grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin outside the chestnut’s natural range, and therefore never knew what it was like to roll out of bed at dawn to earn pockets of money gathering chestnuts to sell by the bushel. Nor had he filled his pockets with brown nuts to use as slingshot ammunition, as schoolboys did in chestnut-rich Appalachia. In fact, he never even had roasted chestnuts over an open fire during Christmas holidays.

Burnham’s interest in the chestnut ignited mainly because his entire professional life had been dedicated to the improvement of agricultural crops, and he thought it was a shame that chestnuts no longer were an important food crop. Mainly it was his work as a corn breeder that heretofore had distinguished him, although he now pooh-poohs his accomplishments, insisting that modern agricultural research has antiquated his work. Nonetheless, his peers’ attitudes toward him range from respect to lionization. “He’s a terrific teacher with students spread all over the country and probably the world; I haven’t run into one yet that hasn’t worshiped him,” says one of his star pupils, Philip Rutter. “He’s certainly one of the best scientists I’ve ever known.”

Adds oft-published chestnut blight expert Sandra Anagnostakis of the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station, “Charles Burnham is the expert. It’s Charles Burnham who tells me what to do with a tree crossing. He’s a wonderful person, and still in relatively good condition despite a couple of minor heart attacks.”

Anagnostakis recalls that around 1980, Burnham wrote several letters to the researchers breeding trees at the Connecticut facility, in which he suggested they make changes in their breeding program. For whatever reason, they ignored his suggestions. In the next few years, however, they themselves retired or departed for one reason or another. “When there was nobody left but him, he said, ‘All right, I’ll do it,’” she says, laughing. “He’s an extremely knowledgeable man, sharp as a tack. He really knows what he’s talking about.”

Burnham’s interest in plant genetics began while he studied for his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin, and it solidified during the Depression while he toiled under postgraduate National Research Council fellowship at Cornell. The Ithaca, New York, Ivy League school boasted a veritable “Murderer’s Row” of plant specialists. One professor was Barbara McClintock, whose genetic studies of corn—specifically her observations on how genes move around—contributed significantly to DNA technology, and in 1983 earned her the Alfred B. Nobel Prize. Another was L.H. MacDaniels, whose specialty was the American chestnut.

During the first half of the 20th century, some of the finest minds in the country—including geneticist Richard Jaynes—worked to save the American chestnut. One method that has shown promise is the injection of a less virulent strain of blight from Italy into infected American chestnuts in the hope that the scientifically introduced variety will subdue the contagious strain. Another attempt that has yet to show encouraging results has been to radiate chestnuts in hopes of producing a resistant hybrid. Most commonly, however, geneticists tried to cross American chestnuts with Asiatic blight-resistant trees, hoping that the hybrid offspring could resist the blight. Unfortunately, in all cases, the blight killed all hybrids that were largely of the American variety, and those that showed the Chinese characteristics were simply too small and bushy to introduce into the forest. Thousands upon thousands of American-Chinese hybrid seedlings had been created, but no one had realized how important it was to backcross (breed a hybrid to one parent) the hybrid offspring to the purely American chestnut. A few such crosses had been performed, but not enough to statistically ensure success. Many a scientist went to the grave thinking that his life’s work had failed and that the chestnut tree was doomed.

Enter Charles Burnham, noted corn breeder but chestnut virgin, who was motivated by a forester’s claim that bringing back the chestnut “was like bringing back the dinosaurs.” Burnham believed that the tree could be saved by backcrossing three generations to develop a hybrid that is fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut—a tree that is disease resistant, but, unlike the diminutive Chinese chestnut, is bred to survive in a forest setting. He found that 16,777,216 combinations of genes were possible, and knew that while the majority of seedlings must be culled as worthless, a few ought to survive and restore the chestnut to it’s former economic glory. Moreover, by doing a bit of legwork, he obtained pollen from a Chinese-American cross that a Logansport, Indiana, nut grower and Cornell Ph.D. named John Shafer had bred on his own, thereby saving himself years of waiting for a hybrid to mature.

What Burnham suggested was hardly a novel concept, but heretofore “nobody sat down and though the thing through,” said West Virginia professor Bill MacDonald at the first annual meeting of the American Chestnut Foundation. A few scientists believed that the old man has just gotten lucky. But Burnham, a pleasant-faced man whose black glasses exaggerate the whiteness of his skin, lashed back with a favorite saying that protected his ego against such criticism: “Success is a matter of luck—ask any failure.”

Charles Burnham is the thinker whose genius may revive the American chestnut, but he has neither the stamina nor tools to thrust the American Chestnut Foundation into the national limelight. Therefore, the job of the president of the fledging foundation is the province of a 41-year-old Philip Rutter, who seems so energized that his friends suspect he must have one heel permanently plugged into a battery charger.

Like many men with great ambitions, Rutter lives a life of contradictions. A self-described “different drummer” who abandoned his Ph.D. studies at the University of Minnesota, he now, nonetheless, supervises college students who serve internships at his Badgersett Research Farm where, he says, he does “university-level research without a university.” He likes to tease his academic colleagues (“I’m one of those who took the advice seriously of those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,” he jokingly tells them), but he admits that “I have great respect for those who fight their way through academic careers.”

Rutter and his wife Mary run Badgersett—located on what he describes as “an inconspicuous highland” in southeastern Minnesota—as a private, independent, horticultural research station. The Rutters’ goal is twofold—to domesticate woody, wild trees to provide an important future food source, and to preserve topsoil by providing an alternative to traditional agricultural practices. “Till it and you are going to lose it,” he warns, adding that he believes the world’s greenhouse CO2 could be reduced by shifting to a production of woody plants.

The master of Badgersett Farm delights in challenging authority. His heroes are native American Indians whom he believes (corn expert Paul Weatherwax disputes this theory) took wild teosinte [Euchlaena], which he describes “basically as some grass with two rows of seeds,” and bred it with considerable sophistication into the food crop known as maize. If they could do that, Rutter wonders why today’s breeders of apples can’t come up with a hybrid tree that doesn’t require pruning. Last year he confronted some grape growers to ask them why they grew their grapes on vines, and was told you grow grapes on vines because grapes have always grown on vines. “I’m sorry, but that’s not a good answer,” Rutter told them, nothing that a variety of wild grape grows vineless on bushed in the United States. “You know how many peasants have killed themselves and spent their lives doing nothing but pruning grapevines? Something like 50 percent of the cost of raising grapes is tied up in pruning costs to keep vines under control.”

Rutter is enough of a capitalist to earn his living by selling produce—and respected enough by his peers to serve as president of the Northern Nut Growers Association—yet says he lives “low on the yuppie scale.” His farm conceivably could go belly up if it weren’t for his large vegetable garden and some part-time jobs to supplement his income. In one sense, he is well organized; maintaining detailed records on every hybrid chestnut seedling the foundation oversees. Nonetheless, his desk buckles under the load of mail he never quite gets around to answering.

“Please, if you have written to me and have not received a reply yet, forgive me,” read Rutter’s “President’s Message” in last February’s issue of The Journal of The American Chestnut Foundation. “It is just that I am daily faced with the choices of following up some new need for the effort to get the Research center going, or mailing off another request for urgently needed funding, or actually pollinating chestnut trees that have to be attended to today, or mailing out information to a journalist who is working on a story, etc.”

Although Rutter runs counter to the academic status quo, he needs credentialed colleagues to shore up his front line when his organization requests grant support. On his agenda is a lobbying attempt to convince New York legislators to fund a cutting-edge research center devoted to the study and propagation of the American chestnut.

Charles Burnham’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota, is located in one of those “real neighborhood” city communities that cling to a few college campuses. His own aluminum-sided house in modest, and the doors and window shutters need painting. But because it’s placed in a neighborhood of towering trees and lovely houses, he takes his constitutionals amid a setting even millionaires might envy. Like that of most plant breeders, Burnham’s property is overrun with flowers, shrubs and green growth. These are beautiful but not exceptionally rare, such as some showy lady’s slippers, the Minnesota state flower.

The inside of Burnham’s house smells like the stacks in an ancient library, and is overrun by old books and thigh-high piles of magazines and scholarly journals. Burnham’s wife died 12 years ago, and he has hired a Chinese housekeeper. Neither she nor her young daughter speaks English, but that doesn’t stop them from answering Burnham’s phone, confusing and frustrating callers. The old professor is a refrigerator philosopher who tapes bits of wisdom he’s borrowed from many sources to the old appliance’s door.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

“The way to a long life is to get a chronic disease and take care of it.”

“Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”

While submitting to an interview with Fireside Companion, Burnham fondles two handfuls of chestnut burs, leaves, twigs, and nuts. The long-dead leaves are a drab-enough olive to look Army issue, contrasting with the rich green leaves on live chestnuts. Narrow as crow feathers, the leaves are three and four inches long, about half the length of mature specimens. Their coarse-toothed appearance is reminiscent of American holly, although the texture of the two is in no way comparable. The midribs of the leaves are prominent, the veins less so.

The spines on the dried burs are prickly. They are no longer than one of Burnham’s fingernails, not much thicker than his untamed eyebrow hairs. Here and there, dead weevils rest on the burs like miniscule ornaments.

Burs contain two or three nuts. The two American chestnuts on Burnham’s table are particularly small, not quite a half-inch in width, although even the long-gone kings of the forest seldom dropped nuts as big as the inch-wide Chinese nuts Burnham arranges next to his two American nuts as a means of comparison. The only noteworthy characteristics of the nuts are their shape (flat on one side and puffed out on the other) and color (the distinctive reddish-brown hue used to describe both the coats of horses and the tresses of women). Burnham’s have a white fuselike “pigtail” at the top of the nut, which is what is left of the pistil of the female flower.

Two unconnected events converted this corn breeder into a chestnut crusader. In 1959, Burnham read Farmers’ Bulletin No. 2068, Chestnut Blight and Resistant Chestnuts, that had been published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1954. Apparently what he’d read fermented within his brain for 21 years. In 1980, while reading another scientific article on the subject, a metaphorical chestnut – instead of the apple that popular myth says inspired Newton’s law of gravity – dropped on his pale bald pate. He began a serious study of the available literature on the American chestnut, convinced that his experience as a breeder could help him succeed against the blight even though all others had failed.

Burnham prefers to be called Charles, because he says that “every old horse in the country is called ‘Charlie.’” Most of his colleagues under 50, with the exception of Rutter, are too awed to refer to him except as “Dr. Burnham.”

Once he became convinced that the chestnut could be saved, he immersed himself in research, learning that information about this member of the beech family (Fagacae) filled many articles and many dissertations. Scientists knew nearly everything about the blight that had attacked the species – everything, that is, but now to overcome it.

Paleontologists believed that many millions of years ago, before radical changes in climate split the geographic makeup of the world into continents, the chestnut trees of North America and the Orient had a common ancestry. If so, like ancient human brings who underwent changes in their genetic character when they became widely separated, the American chestnut may have gradually lost an important trait for fungus resistance that Oriental trees maintained. What is known for certain is that during the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene period, the various ice advances in the world affected the range of the chestnut tree and other plant life. Because the main American mountain ranges (save the Great Smokies) extend north and south, unlike the Alps and Pyrenees of Europe, which mainly have an east-west axis, the chestnut and other tree life managed to “escape” the approach of glaciers. Where once the chestnut was found naturally in what is today Alaska and Colorado, gradually the tree found a home in North America in a range that extended from Maine down the Eastern Seaboard into such Deep South states as Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama. To the West the natural range of the chestnut ended in Michigan and Indiana. Because settlers who abandoned homes in these states to settle elsewhere brought chestnuts to plant with them, that range extended to include present-day Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and California.

The chestnut prefers well-drained sites, but is known to grow in less fertile ground, including rocky, clay, and sandy soils. While most chestnuts grow on acid soil, Rutter has studied a 50-acre stand of about 5,000 chestnut trees in West Salem, Wisconsin (likely the largest remaining stand of mature American chestnut trees in the world), that have a nearly neutral pH between 6.5 and 6.8. Chestnuts, like many trees, says researcher Fredrick L. Paillet, may not prefer poor soils, but rather – like people who prefer being the proverbial big fish in small ponds – do better with less competition. Rutter disputes Paillet’s claim.


Studies published by scholars Gordon Day and Michael Williams report that the Eastern Seaboard Indians of America made ample use of the chestnut tree as a source of fuel. The men used primitive stone axes to cut young trees, and the women gathered downed limbs, which the Native Americans themselves referred to as “squaw wood.” Whether Indians planted chestnuts for trees has been debated by scholars. One school believes that tribes in what is today Ontario, Canada, did just that; another theory is that when Indians moved to an area and hunted squirrels, chestnut seedlings grew where the slain rodents had planted them.

Explorers with the Hernando De Soto expedition (1539-1542) reported seeing chestnuts in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia, which they noted were smaller than those found in their native Spain. Since first-growth chestnut trees, when unblighted and spared the ax, can live more than 500 to 600 years, specimens observed by De Soto’s company had the potential to be around for us, too, to see.

Until about 1800, incidentally, people pronounced and spelled the word “chestnut” without a “t.” A memoir written in the 16th century by a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s doomed Virginia colony said that chestnuts were found in “diverse places” and eaten raw, crushed and boiled for “spoonmeat,” and made An English visitor to Boston in 1686 named John Dunton praised the chestnuts he found in New England and claimed that the Indians called it Wompimineash. Dunton said that the Indians “have a peculiar art of drying” chestnuts to eat as a “dainty” or snack. And British trader Thomas Morton, once head of the Merry Mount (now Quincy) settlement in Massachusetts, endorsed the timber, which he found “excellent for building,” and the abundant nuts, which eh called “a very good commodity . . . both for men and beast.”

The chestnut was so common that by 1880, people used the expression “old chestnuts” as a synonym for outworn jokes. Because the chestnut dominated 200 million acres of Eastern forest – making up as much as 25 percent of the tree mass in some states – it was not only economically important, but also beloved by the American people. The chestnut tree’s spectacular early summer display of spikelike catkins – pungent- smelling and displaying blossoms the hue of old, creamy-colored ivory – gave people the same pleasure that the flowering of azaleas and dogwoods brings us today.

Writer Charles Thurston, in an article for The American Forestry Magazine in the early 1920s, celebrated chestnut trees. “They impress us with their charm. Not so somber as the pine, not so robust as the oak, not so lanky as the elm, not so symmetrical as the popular maple, it has qualities in common with all, and yet an individuality all its own.”

Not surprisingly, American writers loved the chestnut. Chestnuts grew near Walden Pond, and when Thoreau once gave a bag of them to a farmer who had lent him an ax, he remarked, I”I surely would hate to be the man who takes out of the boy’s life the pleasure of getting chestnuts.” Many poems, come lovely and some cloyingly sweet, have been penned about eh tree. Robert Frost wrote “Evil Tendencies Cancel” which says that the blight one day must end. But curiously, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem about the village blacksmith which schoolchildren once memorized (“Under the spreading chestnut tree, The village smithy stands”), isn’t really about an American chestnut at all, says Burnham, but about eh unrelated horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastunum), whose nuts were never valued by anyone except for carrying in one’s hip pocket as a pseudo-cure for rheumatism.

Today’s average American under 50 has seldom heard of the American chestnut, let alone felt a loss, because the blight gradually has weaned everyone from it. The American chestnut was never the diet staple that it is for Koreans, nor did Americans grieve its loss the way the Irish mourned the potato shortage during the 1840 famine, But the blight did devastate the eastern highland region of the United States know as Appalachia. Take a drive through Kentucky, West Virginia, or Tennessee and stop elders to ask about the chestnut blight, and you’ll hear dismay in their voices. “People sure felt a loss because the chestnut served so many purposes,” said the former editor of Appalachia Heritage, Kentuckian Albert Stewart. “That time was hard times. People couldn’t sell them, and what could they do with them? You let’em rot and lie there.”

The chestnut blight has been called “the greatest botanical disaster in history” by many observers, including Richard F. West, professor emeritus at Rutgers University. “For the first half of this century that’s certainly accurate,” qualifies Philip Rutter, who tacks on a blackhumored joke. “I always add on ‘the first half of this century’ because a lot of people have their own [favorite] disasters, and you don’t want to irritate them.”

Human beings possess long memories when it come t o recalling beloved things and people which were lost in their youth. Few things in life can always be counted on, but until the damnable blight spread its pores across the nation, chestnuts were a source of protein that didn’t cost a man anything as long as he had the energy to gather them. The people of Appalachia believed that if you cut one chestnut down, two jumped up in its place.

“The chestnut bloomed in June and July and never got frozen,” recalls 89-year-old Maurice Brooks, an emeritus professor of forestry at West Virginia University. He emphasizes that other tree crops such as oaks were uncertain because acorns often were destroyed by late freezes. “Chestnut was never failing,” he says. “Nuts ripened in September and October.”

Chestnuts fed stock as well as people. The archaic “mast,” which has both Anglo-Saxon and German derivations, was used by the residents of Appalachia as an all-inclusive term to describe such forage as acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts. “People used to turn their hogs loose in the woods to run, and each hog would have a mark on its ear like cattle, registering it, so people would know who owned it,” says Loyal Jones, a co-author of Laughter in Appalachia. “The hogs would get as fat as could be on the mast of the woods.”

Professor Brooks, author of a regional natural history titled The Appalachians, recalls how farm families – during the height of the autumn gathering season – boiled, roasted, and peeled chestnuts for their own use, and then sold or traded the rest. “I made my pocket money as a kid gathering up chestnuts to sell at three cents a pound,” says Brooks.

Chestnuts were shipped in boxcars to New York and Philadelphia, where they sold well on street corners to members of all ethnic groups. In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English says that a slur against Italian immigrants was to call them “chestnut stabbers” because so many street vendors of that extraction peddled chestnuts.

There were many ways to enjoy chestnuts. They could be eaten right off the tree. “Nothin’ beat them when they were raw, Lord yes,” says Albert Stewart. In those pre-television and pre-radio times, families sat around the kitchen conversing while paring the shells off bushelsful of chestnuts. If worms were present, chestnuts could be boiled to kill the pests.

Many people, of course, preferred roasting chestnuts on top of a wood stove or in the embers of a fireplace. “We used to roast them in the fire in the ashes just for fun,’ says Steward. “We [heated them in] those old black iron skillets. You couldn’t heat them too hot or they’d burn on the outside. You wanted them pretty warm, but you had to be careful or they’d burn. They swelled up some because of the moisture on the inside of the kernel. That loosened the outer shell, which was pretty tough, you know. You’d take a sharp knife, and the shell peeled off pretty easy.”

Chestnut fanciers slit a small “X” into the otherwise airtight shell to keep the nut from blowing up when the steam inside hit its pressure point, much like what would happen today if an egg were placed in a microwave. Rutter notes that courting couples used to throw chestnuts into the fire and bet kisses on whose would explode first – a tradition celebrated in the seasonal song, “Sleighride,” when we sing, “while we watch the chestnuts pop – pop, pop, pop!”

Curiously, people who have eaten chestnuts have widely varying opinions as to how they tasted. Why? Because the taste of chestnuts often varied significantly from one tree to another. In fact, chestnuts fascinated Luther Burbank – inspiring him to create hybrids – because he found such significant variations from one plant to another. He found chestnuts that were small and big and good tasting and bad tasting. All they had in common was that they were American chestnuts.

Professor Brooks, for example, dismisses them as “rough food, good enough for ordinary occasions, but nothing special.” He prefers the taste of black walnuts, hickory nuts, and white walnuts.

Those who like the taste of carbohydrate-rich chestnuts most often describe them as sweet. Stewart believes that today’s youth who eat imported chestnuts are missing an old-fashioned treat. “There’s no comparison,” he says. “American chestnuts were sweeter and tenderer. These Chinese chestnuts are coarse and hard, and don’t have much flavor.”

Sandra Anagnostakis of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station agrees with Stewart. “We finally had a harvest a few years ago which was big enough so we could eat some without destroying vital genetic material,” she reveals. “American chestnuts are much sweeter. They also have the advantage of having a pellicle. If you peel the shell away there’s a thin, paperlike covering that is Asian and European trees adheres very closely to the nut and has a slight bitter taste. American chestnuts tend to peel clean, and that’s nice. The shells peel easily and the pellicle come away. The nuts are small, but the flavor’s really quite good. I see no reason with a little careful breeding the nut size couldn’t be increased.”

The sweetness of an American chestnut is a process that goes on after the nut drops from the tree. It has more to do with water loss than anything else, says Phil Rutter, terming the flavor of chestnuts an “elusive’ topic. He explains that American chestnuts, being smaller, lose water faster than the typically larger species of chestnuts from the Orient. The chestnut is extremely unusually among seed in that it is starchy when fresh, and as it dries out, the starch turns to sugar. Almost all other seeds do things that other way around. Sweet corn, for example, is sweet on the stalk, and when you pull it off it begins to turn to starch. Concludes Rutter, “Chestnuts are backwards. The whole darn species is backwards on a lot of things. They are very unusually biologically.”

The reign of William and Mary was known as the Age of Walnut, and the Early Georgian period as the Age of Mahogany, but no period is remembered as the Age of the Chestnut. The chestnut was merely the tree’s world’s equivalent of a blue-collar working stiff. For the most part, its wood fulfilled solid, unromantic functions, including exterior logs, beams, shingles, attic floorboards, mine props, packing crates, telegraph and telephone poles, the tan wood found in old closets, no-nonsense cabinets, and furniture-such as baby cradles-intended for use and abuse, not for exhibiting. Chestnut wood presented its best side when used in paneling. This bright-grained wood was sort of a poor man’s ash, and was no less pretty for all the holes in it, which gave it the unflattering title of “wormy chestnut.” The holes were made by a certain insect that bored into the wood to hide and to raise its young. The Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky has perhaps the loveliest wood paneling of the wormy chestnut variety anywhere. The New York Times early in this century called chestnut one of our most important lumber trees. In 1906 alone, loggers cut 407,379,000 feet of the coarse-grained wood, which experts have said made up in durability what it lacked in strength,. “It us stronger than Norway pine and red spruce [but] slightly weaker than tamarack and loblolly pine,” reported the Times. “The crushing strength per square inch of small air-dried pieces is 5,550 pounds. The weight of seasoned chestnut wood is 28 pounds per cubic foot.”

Nearly every part of the tree served a purpose. Hill country people even boiled the leaves as a folk remedy to relieve the pain of swollen feet. The chestnut also was a popular choice of pulpwood because the young chestnuts grew twice as fast as oaks. The wood was so common that even nut-producing trees were cut for firewood, although chestnut couldn’t match hickory or oak for heat efficiency. Those with delicate stomachs often had a problem digesting raw chestnuts, because they contained tannic acid, which (along with chestnut bark) was used in tanning, fountain pen ink, dyes, and as medicinal astringent. A happy result of the chestnuts high acid content is what the wood resisted of the chestnut’s high acid content is that the wood resisted bacterial activity, causing standing trees and even downed logs to keep longer than nearly all other Eastern hardwoods. The chestnut was unbeatable as a source of wood for railroad ties and the crooked-running “worm fences” that once covered the South. “When it wasn’t touching the ground it lasted practically forever,” said Brooks.

When Albert Stewart was a boy he watched his daddy make fence palings. By and by a stranger came along.

“That make good fence?” The man wanted to know.


“Last good?”

“Last a lifetime,” dead-panned Stewart’s daddy. “I’ve tried it twice.”

A few years ago, Loyal Jones noticed some wood out in Berea College dumpster that came from the college’s first buildings in the late 1850s. The paneling was all chestnut, and workmen had ripped it out and thrown it all away. After retrieving it, Jones made picture frames out of it. “It’s a beautiful wood,” he understates. Jones also had made vases out of stovepipe-lengths of old chestnut and once created and planed a weaving bench by hand for his daughter out of a slab of chestnut taken from the frame of his grandfather’s house in North Carolina when it, too, was torn down.

Professor Brooks lives in the oldest house in Monongalia County, West Virginia. It retains its original chestnut logs from when it was built as an Indian fort in 1772 to protect settlers. Tobacco sheds from the American chestnut still stand in Hadley, Massachusetts. Kentuckian Stewart lives in his grandfather’s old wood cabin, where he has a chestnut beam that’s still solid after being in place, as he puts it, “for a hundred-and-God-knows-how-many years.” And in the ground all over Appalachia, the bones of many Americans molder inside plain, slow-to-rot coffins made of chestnut.

Before the blight, recalls Maurice Brooks, the principal enemies of the chestnut crop were “two long-snouted weevils that laid their eggs in chestnuts.” Brooks said one of the “pestiferous insects” was particularly obnoxious because its eggs hatched about the time the burs opened and the nuts dropped, making them fit only for hogs and quail. As an experiment, Brooks’ father once counted 3,600 worms, which dropped out of a single bushel of nuts.

During the late 19th century, weevils ruined up to 25 percent of the total chestnut crop. But by 1908, the pests had been controlled by spraying them with disulphide of carbon and by introducing the braconid parasite, a natural enemy of the weevils.

In addition to weevil pets, eve before the blight struck, chestnuts occasionally were troubled by such exotic-sounding traumas as white-piped buttrot, Strumella canker, damping-of, drowning roots, frost-cracks, galls, gas and smoke injury, large leafspot, lichen injury, mistletoe diseases, mycorhizas, powdery mildes, rootrot, silver blight of leaves, slime flux, smothering disease, sooty molds, straw-colored heartwoood-rot, sun-scalded bark, sun-scorched leaves, and brown-checked wood-ro.

None of them, of course, frightened lovers of chestnut trees the way the blight did and does. Fungi that rotted wood were always a problem, wrote L.H. MacDaniels, in a Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation article published in 1986 after the Cornell professor’s death, at 97. He said that people tried to stop its spread by filling hollow trees with tons of concrete, a practice that not only didn’t work, but caused problems for MacDaniels when he took a job after high school with a southeastern New York tree company. “When the blight killed the trees, it was practically impossible to remove them,” he said.

According to Charles Burnham, chestnut blight is caused by a fungus–as an ascomycete–that produces two different spores designed by nature to spread themselves in different ways. The first spores are conidia or pyenidiospores, which do not live long, and which are produced in “sticky masses” that come forth like paste out of a tube. These adhere quite easily to the bodies of birds and insects. A field study in which one woodpecker was found to have 757,000 spores was reported by writer Wilson B. Sayers. Then there are so-called ascospores that are windblown to other chestnut palms. Burnham says that these are especially troublesome because even long-dead chestnuts will produce ascospores. The blight can then be transmitted even on lengths of cut firewood and on bark-covered poles. The fungus also exists on other species of plants, but without the disastrous “success” it has with the American chestnut. One exception is a dwarf chestnut relation, the chinquapin [Castranea pumila], which dies quickly when stricken by the blight.

The fungus can enter only through a wound in the surface of a chestnut tree, but that is not a reassuring technicality. A wound can be caused by such everyday occurrences as pruning, a squirrel’s scratches, wood-boring beetles, a woo-pecker’s drilling, and even y one limb falling onto another.

According to a Unite States Department of Agriculture bulletin, the fungus forms mycelia, thin strands that feed upon bark tissue; like a microscopic army they eventually inhabit all the bark “and form buff-colored mats or fans in the bark and cambium.” When the blight is an advanced stage, its cankers girdle the chestnut tree. Blisters on the bark, says the bulletin, “look like yellow orange, or red-brown pinheads dotted over the surface of cankers.”

The disease entered the United States on imported Oriental chestnut trees shipped to New York City in that prequarantine ea shortly before of after 1900. By 1904–coincidentally the year Burnham was born– the fungus had overrun the American chestnut trees at the New York Zoological Gardens. The blight attacked seedlings and majestic old-timers with equal irreverence. Lone chestnut trees on opulent estates died as quickly as did trees growing in isolated stands of forest.


In the fall of 1905, according to the New York Times, Merkel asked Dr. William A. Murrill of the New York Botanical Garden to help him fight the “blight” or “chestnut bark disease” as he called it. Murrill, the assistant director, was the first in a long line of researchers to study the disease. He referred to the so-called “red-fruited” fungus or canker by the Latin names Diaporthe [utterly ruinous] parasitica, while other scientists called it Valsonectria parasitica; eventually those names were dropped in favor of Endothia parasitica and Cryphonectria parasitica.

Murrill found that the blight had infested thousands of trees in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania by 1908. Moreover, additional reports of infected trees came from as far south as Washington, D.C. Fourteen hundred trees in one Brooklyn Park alone stood dying. Murrill, by 1908, predicted the extinction of the American chestnut. “There are absolutely no remedies against it, in spite of what Secretary Metcalf has stated on the subject,” said Murrill. His only solution, impossible to enforce, was to convert each infected tree to lumber, to pass a law preventing the sending of infected chestnuts to other parts of the country, and to warn other nations – particularly a major market, Italy – not to import the nut.

The New York Times reported that the Botanical Garden had received hundreds of letters from distressed chestnut tree owners, some of whom owned a single specimen and some whose estates were covered with trees. From 1906 to 1908 alone, the blight destroyed up to $10 million’s worth of chestnut trees in the New York City Vicinity. Many unscrupulou8s men made small fortunes peddling worthless potions “guaranteed” to cure the blight.

Concluded the Times, “The wail of the chestnut tree lover is heard from all parts of New York, Long Island, and adjacent country.” Decade by decade, that wail grew louder and more agonizing as the disease pushed relentlessly west and south, leaving flimsy specters that eventually fell like gun-shot soldiers.

Charles Burnham’s optimism is now shared by many other researchers, although some members of the scientific community remain skeptical about the chestnut’s chances for a comeback. As recently as the late 1970s, when researcher Frederick Paillet, now with the U.S. Geological Survey, tried to publish original papers on the chestnut, several juried publications rebuffed him. Studying chestnuts was regarded as about as fashionable as wearing knickers to a punk rock concert. “This is all mildly interesting, but he chestnut’s dead and gone and who cared?” was the attitude Paillet perceived. “One [reader] actually said that this [chestnut research] is sort of like freezing dead bodies until a cure comes along in the future,” he recalls.

Nonsensical talk such as this doesn’t daunt the chestnut researchers. “We need pessimists to keep the rest of us honest,” jokes Anagnostakis. Curiously, although the chestnut is a plant that needs both male and female flowers to produce more of its species sexually, studies by Paillet and other have shown that to survive, it resprouts asexually from specially designed dormant buds around the base of blight trunks. Thus, says Rutter, even if this latest attempt to save the chestnut fails, perhaps in 5,000 or 6,000 years – a drop in the bucket to a tree species – the chestnut possibly can evolve its own resistance to the blight.

So why do Charles Burnham and his followers devote their lives to saving a dying chestnut? One reason may be the very urgency of the problem. Writer Annie Dillard says that there is little you can say to a dying person “that would not enrage by its triviality,” and so too, for those of us who love nature, there is real urgency to act when a species faces doom. Contrary to what the poet John Donne wrote, the death of one man doesn’t diminish us one whit unless we loved or hated him, but the death of one species involves us all – either as mourners or as perpetrators of that species’ destruction.

Charles Burnham, of course, won’t be around to see the result of what may be his most lasting contribution to society, but this doesn’t’ disturb him. “We have a lot of people just starting work on the American chestnut who will carry it out,” he promises. “If we get blight-resistant trees, they’ll spread naturally.”

No one could ask for a happier ending to a fable than that.