The return of the American chestnut

I find that gardeners often make good/adventurous/caring cooks and to me, a particularly interesting story is one that mixes plants and food. "The return of the American chestnut" is one such story by Russ Parsons in today's LA Times Food Section.

The American chestnut in the title refers to "Colossal" a French/Japanese cross developed by a California nurseryman named Felix Gillet in the late 1800s.

At one time, the chestnut tree was one of the most numerous on the North American continent. It is estimated that they accounted for between a quarter and a third of all the trees that grew in the huge forest that once blanketed the area from northern Georgia to New England.

Then, just after the turn of the last century, the trees began to die. The culprit was a fungal spore that probably had hitchhiked on a Chinese chestnut specimen tree imported by the New York Botanical Garden.

The chestnut blight spread like a wind-driven wildfire. The carnage almost defies imagination. Within five years, it had killed most of the chestnuts in the New York area. By the 1950s, only a few isolated trees remained on the entire continent.

Between 3 billion and 4 billion trees had died. That was, as Susan Freinkel points out in her splendid new book "American Chestnut," "enough trees to fill 9 million acres. Enough trees to cover Yellowstone National Park 1,800 times over. Enough trees to give two to every person on the planet at that time."

Imagine the wildlife loss when, over the course of 50 years, 99.999+% of the American Chestnut forest died. The larger mammals that sustained themselves on the natural chestnut harvest would have decreased dramatically in number as they lost a consistent fall food source. The carnivores that fed on the mammals would have decreased in turn.

Wikipedia notes, "It is thought that panic logging during the early years of the blight may have unwittingly destroyed trees which had resistance to this disease and thus aggravated the calamity."

Certainly, it's easy to think of them as strictly an East Coast nostalgia food, part and parcel with frosty city sidewalks and Jack Frost nipping at whatever exposed body parts he can find. ¶ But in fact, these nuts have a long history in the Golden State, one that a handful of growers are struggling to keep alive. And if all you've ever had are stale imported supermarket chestnuts -- many of which are even moldy -- these California nuts can be a revelation, delicately sweet and slightly chewy.

I've tried chestnuts several times, but never enjoyed them so much that I needed to have more than a couple. My best experience was with some marrons glacee, but even then they weren't so much good as inoffensive. However, I have to say that if I found some at my local farmer's market I'd give them another try based on this article.

The American Chestnut Foundation is one of several organizations that has a breeding program to return a mostly American chestnut to the forests.


  1. It looks like a tree was found near Lake Erie last month. It's pretty rare for the region. Some more interesting info over at

  2. There are many good folks working on bringing back the chestnut. So heartwarming. Whenever I hear about the chestnuts I always think of the elm trees. I still remember when my grandparents beautiful and stately elms had to be cut down due to the Dutch elm disease. They are slowly coming back too. Hope reins.

  3. Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer?

  4. Tina -

    Thanks for responding. I did a bit more reading on efforts to restore the chestnut, and there's quite a bit of progress that's being made on several fronts. Optimism abounds.

    The elms are another sad story with a hopefully happy ending. Maybe I'll talk about that in another blog posting. So far as I can tell, the short story to date is that a selection of elm known as "American Liberty", bred from resistant American Elm parents, is available but it's not 100%.

    Finally, a tree story that make take place in our lifetime is that of sudden oak death, another fungal infection that is currently active in N. Ca. among our native oaks.

    Grace - I wasn't even aware of _Prodigal Summer_, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'll look for it used.