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The King of the Eastern Forest

By John Glenn, Landscape Architect

The American chestnut tree was once the king of the eastern forest. It was so important to the country that it became part of our culture. The tree was immortalized in song phrases, such as “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and in the song “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.”

Although we think of the tree as an eastern species, the Yosemite Valley in California was once a much different landscape, full of chestnut tree orchards managed by the Native American people for nut production. The Native American people of the area would burn the chestnut forest floor to keep the spruce and other evergreens out of the areas and then collect the nuts that had fallen on the forest floor. The chestnut tree was also a huge food source for turkey, deer, squirrels, and other animals found in America’s woodlands. Farmers through the Appalachians fattened hogs and livestock  on chestnuts. The lumber was valuable and used in many different applications from furniture, tobacco stakes, and telephone poles to flooring, shingles and building materials.

Then, in the early 20th century, a shipment of Chinese chestnuts brought to Long Island from the Netherlands carried an exotic blight that changed the American landscape forever. The Manager of Horticulture at the Central Park Zoo first identified the Chestnut Blight. This blight quickly spread  throughout the eastern United States. The lumber industry saw the destruction and raced to remove healthy trees in order to harvest the valuable lumber before the blight killed them. The devastation took the American chestnut to the brink of extinction.

Some chestnuts survived the blight, as well as logging efforts, in pockets across the country. One such lone survivor is a tree in Adair County, Kentucky. These isolated trees cannot set nuts by themselves, however, and new seedlings are exceedingly rare.

These remnants of the forest are subjects of research to develop a blight-resistant tree by cross-pollination with the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to the blight. The Kentucky Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF-KY) has become the Johnny Appleseed of the American chestnut tree. This organization is distributing seedlings from pollination of the Adair County tree for test planting to help identify areas where the chestnuts will grow well in Kentucky.

A large study and reintroduction of chestnut trees to the Mammoth Cave National Park is currently underway. And now, in partnership with TACF-KY, the Louisville Zoo will become home to several trees from the Adair County mother tree. The Zoo is excited about joining this important conservation effort, and we will eventually be testing new varieties of blight-resistant chestnut trees. If the project is successful, the hope is to plant the trees in other areas of Jefferson County, including the Metro parks.

While the Zoo has a Chinese chestnut located at the top of the Islands area walk on the plaza, the American chestnuts will be located in another area of the Zoo that will provide a better growing site for the trees. The MetaZoo Education Center will be involved in the educational aspect of this program by conducting classes that teach the story of a tree. Classes may be designed to include tours of the  trees. Eventually, the trees will be visible from the Zoo’s train ride. TTACF-KY will also graciously donate signage to inform Zoo guests of the history of the chestnut tree and the restoration project.

TACF-KY is also asking for help locating chestnut trees in our area in order to develop a census of any other trees that may have been missed or overlooked. Much like the sighting of an endangered animal species, finding one of these now rare trees is exciting and special.

If you find a tree, or know of other chestnuts in the Jefferson County area, you can be a part of the restoration by contacting  Anne Myers, the Jefferson County contact for The American Chestnut Foundation, at (502)634-1790 or ammyers@massmed.org.

The future for the tree looks good with new research and breeding programs, and promising attempts to develop a blightresistant tree.