There were once an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees in the eastern US. They were the redwoods of the East Coast, and many uses were developed for the trees. The trees grew quickly to massive dimensions, and were long the primary source for construction timber. They also provided a sweet nut (up to 6000 per tree!) for roasting and generated wistful references in various American songs and prose. Chestnut Mares and chestnut hair, and Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
It’s difficult to locate mature American chestnut trees in wild forests anymore. In the 1890s, smaller Chinese chestnut trees were imported, due to their smaller size, as orchard specimens. They brought with them a fungus that the species had adapted a defense to over many years, but also proved fatal to the American chestnut. Borne by squirrels and migrating birds, the fungal blight killed stands of the giant trees. That same disease remains in the soil today, preventing the American chestnut from reaching anything close to its former dimensions. “Essentially, the giant chestnuts, which once enjoyed a lifespan of up to 300 years, were reduced to shrubs by the 1950s.”
For the first twenty years of the 1900s, an arboreal panic existed, and various groups tried mightily to isolate the disease, cordon off the healthy trees, and even clear cut areas considered prone to infection, all to no avail. It was the end of an era, and scientists have been working ever since to create a blight resistant hybrid chestnut.
There is a small grove of the smaller but heartier Chinese chestnuts along the walking path in the Southwest corner of Lafayette Park. In the fall, they drop their husk covered seeds, which we call chestnuts. The husks dry out and split open, revealing (typically) three nuts. The nuts are often mistakenly called buckeyes, and close, but no cigar on that one.
The husks protect the immature nuts on the tree with a nearly impregnable defense of needle sharp spines. When they fall to the ground, they look like an arboreal version of a hedgehog.
These husks are incredibly numerous, and present a prickly threat to dogs and anyone coming in contact with them. The spines pierce skin effortlessly and infect easily. Best treatment seems to be treating the affected area with betadine, or to soaking in epsom salts.
I made the rookie mistake of picking up one bag and letting it swing against my lower leg, developing a fascinating display of small red welts in the process. Live and learn.
It’s time for harvest, and the chestnuts are thick on the ground. The end result of some browsing and picking is a delightfully good nut, which requires a bit of preparation. A good resource to guide you through the process is Maria from She Loves Biscotti. Check it out at
And watch out for those husks!
Heather Gilligan for timeline.com; January 24 2017. https://timeline.com/american-chestnut-trees-disappeared-39217da38c59
Revival Of The American Chestnut; American Forests.org; Tom Horton; 2010; forests.org at https://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/revival-of-the-american-chestnut/
Photo of chestnuts in the pod from sciencemag.org
“Whats the difference between horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts?” Sean Corp; Michigan State University Extension; October 7 2013
Identification assistance from Ward Buckner and Carolyn Willmore of the Lafayette Park Conservancy
Old photo of felled 100 ft chestnut tree from Annandale (Virginia) Chamber of Commerce