Chestnuts have a long association with the holiday season. Whether roasted on an open fire (do you hear Nat King Cole singing?) or used in desserts, they are one of the flavors that many associate with the winter holidays. However, in America, the now humble chestnut once meant much more. At the turn of the century, the American chestnut was one of the most populous and vital trees in the country. Its range stretched north-south from Maine to Georgia and east-west from the coast to Illinois and Arkansas. An estimated four billion chestnut trees stood within this expanse, making up a quarter of all hardwood trees. In her book The American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Susan Frienkel writes, “Legend has it that a squirrel could travel the chestnut canopy from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground. Along the way it would pass over at least 1,904 places with ‘chestnut’ in their names.” The American chestnut was essential to the lives and livelihood of many in this range, providing them with food, fodder, and shelter. Chestnuts were also a crucial part of the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for wildlife. However, in a single generation this towering and useful tree was almost completely annihilated.
In 1904, chestnut blight was found on some imported chestnut trees on Long Island, New York. The blight quickly spread to the American chestnuts, which had no resistance whatsoever. The blight spread at a rampant pace throughout the huge chestnut population, killing each tree it came in contact with. Within 25 years, billions of trees had been killed; within 50 years, the American chestnut was on the brink of extinction. Only a handful of isolated trees remained alive, out of an initial population of four billion. Frienkel calls the chestnut blight, “…one of the worst blows to the continent’s ecosystem since the Ice Age.”
Campaigns to restore the American chestnut have been underway since the 1930s. Efforts are now focused on crossbreeding the American chestnut with other chestnut species that are more resistant to the blight. Restoration efforts have met with limited success. Within a few years new saplings succumb to the same blight that afflicted their long dead ancestors. Some older secluded American chestnuts still live scattered throughout the country and number of hybrid saplings are currently in the New York Botanical Gardens.
The chestnuts we eat in the United States today are almost entirely imported, mostly from Sicily. Chestnuts can be eaten raw or roasted. If roasting, score the flat side of the chestnut using the tip of a knife. If not scored the chestnut will explode like popcorn. Chestnuts, being substantially larger than popcorn kernels, are not things you want flying like arboreal missiles in your home or oven. You can roast over a fire or in the oven at 400 degrees, for approximately 20 minutes. Peel while still warm and enjoy.