A very good friend e-mailed me a lot of information about the American Chestnut tree. Consequently I would like to do a two part series. This issue will describe the tree, its wood, and its demise. Next month will describe what is being done in trying to restore the Chestnut to its previous glory.
The American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) used to blanket the Eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida. It has been reported that the mountains of Appalachia appeared snow covered during the summer months because the trees "cloaked themselves with white blossoms." The blossoms produced the delicious nuts which were an important cash crop for the people of Appalachia. They gathered and stored the nuts in burlap bags which were later shipped to New England during the Holiday Season.
The American Chestnut Foundation describes the trees as towering as much as 100 feet above the ground with trunks 10 feet in diameter: they were known as the Redwoods of the East. Actually, the wood of the Chestnut is more rot resistant than the Redwoods which is why it was widely used for poles, fence posts, and railroad ties. The sapwood is narrow, whitish to light brown. The heartwood is grayish brown to brown darkening with age.
It is ring porous like Oak, is sometimes mistaken for Oak, but is less dense and more stable with freedom from warping and moderate shrinkage. It also has good gluing qualities. Consquently, it is an outrageously good wood for millwork and furniture. Other uses are tannin (it was the principal domestic source), semichemical pulp for fiberboard, caskets, coffins, boxes, crates, and plywood.
Unfortunately, in 1904 a bark disease was detected in trees in the New York City area which was caused by the Cryphonectria parasitica or Endothia parasitica fungus (two sources gave me two different names). The fungus arrived in the U.S. with a Chestnut tree imported from Asia. The disease kills everything but the roots which is why you can only find Chestnut "sprouts": once they get to any size they are wiped out. All the wildlife that ate the nuts spread the fungus while running around the forest and even a light rainfall could cause the spores to bounce up and be spread by wind or birds. Clearcuts, burning, and toxic chemicals did little to stop the disease. The only Chestnut I hear being harvested these days is the bug infested, standing dead which yields "wormy chestnut" for paneling.