American Chestnuts Too Rare to Roast

American chestnut leaves, nut husks and nuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 December 2023

The Nutty Series: American chestnut

‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / And folks dressed up like Eskimos.’

NPR: The Story Behind the Christmas Song

Despite the popularity of The Christmas Song, you’ll never find nuts of the American chestnut in the wild. By the time The Christmas Song was written in 1945 mature American chestnuts were nearly gone from North America. Today there are so few surviving mature trees that Wikipedia lists only 25 locations though people are always searching.

American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) used to be more abundant than oaks within their native range.

Former range of the American chestnut (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Then in the late 1800s someone imported Japanese chestnut trees that had chestnut blight. Asian chestnuts are immune, American trees are not. First noticed at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, chestnut blight spread quickly and nothing could stop it. By 1950 mature American chestnut trees were gone throughout their range.

Chestnut blight is caused by a fungus that kills the above-ground portion of the tree by getting under the bark and girdling the trunk.

Chestnut blight on an American chestnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The stump lives and sends up seedlings though they die as saplings. The process repeats — seedlings, sapling, death. Most stumps are at least a hundred years old.

To find a chestnut in the woods I look for the leaves at knee height. The photo below shows a typical American chestnut stump with seedlings. This one has a dead sapling as well.

American chestnut seedlings sprouting from a stump surrounding a sapling that died of blight (photo by Richard Gardner,

For over 70 years arborists have been searching for a cure for chestnut blight and trying to breed immune American chestnuts. They have crossed the American chestnut with Chinese chestnuts, then back-crossed the hybrid to another American chestnut. These efforts, supported by The American Chestnut Foundation among many others, take decades to realize any success.

There are several experimental orchards in Pennsylvania. All are protected from deer.

American chestnut orchard in PA, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Arborists collect the nuts, not to roast but to plant, so we’ll have more chestnuts some day.

American chestnut nuts in husk (photo by USDA Forest Service – Southern Research Station , USDA Forest Service, SRS,

As potentially successful hybrids become available, they are planted more widely — still in protected areas — to test their immunity and build back the chestnut population.

Planting an American chestnut orchard at Sky Meadows, VA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At these locations the leaves are above knee height.

American chestnut leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps in one to two hundred years the nuts of American chestnuts will be easy to find and we’ll appreciate the first phrase of The Christmas Song again.

(credits are in the captions)

One thought on “American Chestnuts Too Rare to Roast

  1. We lived in central Virginia for many years. Good friends of ours had a property just outside the boundaries of the Shenandoah National Park. Two of the known 100 American chestnut trees in Virginia were on their property. Every year, people from the forestry service came to collect pollen from those blight resistant trees to use in development of more blight resistant chestnut trees. Our friends were delighted to be the keepers of such a valuable botanical legacy.

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