The American chestnut once dominated Eastern North America, with the total number of trees estimated at 4 billion a little more than a century ago.
They were the prevailing species in many areas, particularly in the Appalachia region, where 25 percent of trees were chestnuts.
“Entire communities in Appalachia depended on the chestnut for everything,” said Marshal Case, former president of the Asheville, NC-based American Chestnut Foundation. The nonprofit has been leading the effort to re-establish the trees.
Chestnut trees were integral to everyday life in Appalachia and were known as “cradle to grave trees,” Case told National Geographic.
“Craftsmen made baby cradles and coffins from the rot-resistant hardwood. The trees were also used to build houses, telephone poles, and railroad ties,” he said. “Wildlife thrived on the trees, which each year produced bumper crops of nuts.”
The American chestnut was dealt a near-death blow with the introduction of Chinese chestnuts into the New York Botanical Gardens, now known as the Bronx Zoo. The Chinese chestnut brought with it a blight that, while it didn’t affect its carrier, was devastating to the American chestnut.
First identified in 1904, the blight, a fungus, infected and killed about 99.9 percent of the American chestnuts from Georgia to Maine and west to the Ohio Valley within 50 years.
New shoots often sprout from the roots when the main stem dies, so the species has not yet become extinct. However, the stump sprouts rarely reach more than 20 feet in height before blight returns.