By Lewis Donohew
I had thought the American Chestnut extinct, the mighty tree felled by a blight in the early twentieth century. When I discovered two chestnut trees on my farm, only a few feet from my house, I assumed they were some other variety and didn’t investigate further. Besides that, their nuts were protected by sharp spines and by the time they fell to the ground they had been invaded by pests who entered by boring tiny holes, then devoured their contents. Thus, there didn’t seem to be much to invite pursuing more examination.
They remained largely ignored until a friend, a home winemaker coming for her annual supply of grapes, recognized them and investigated further, which I reported to you previously. In a recent column for a local weekly newspaper she wrote the results of her investigation. She is convinced they are the original American Chestnut she remembers eating during her childhood in Philadelphia and that I remember hearing my dad talk about. If that’s true, they’re Castanea dentata, the kind remembered in song for roasting on an open fire, most famously sung by Nat King Cole.
I learned a little more about them from a recent feature article in The New York Times. It turns out that not all of the trees died. A few survived in the forests so long as they did not suffer a break in the bark and get attacked by one of the deadly spores of the Asian bark fungus, which wiped out an estimated three to four billion trees. Today there are programs to restore them, including a breeding program by the American Chestnut Foundation, which crosses them with a resistant variety. The organization has concentrated on north central Appalachia and has its research farm in Virginia.
The oldest known American chestnut tree in Kentucky was discovered in 1999 in Adair County (county seat Columbia), in the southwestern part of the state. It was determined to be 80 years old and is fifty feet tall.
Occasionally since learning more, I have carefully plucked a chestnut off a low-hanging branch, inspected it carefully to make sure there were no holes in it, then broken it open and tried to eat it without benefit of fire. It is supposed to be edible roasted or raw, but I think the consumer will be better off to follow the advice offered by Mr. Cole and roast them, if not on an open fire at least in an oven, maybe even a microwave oven (but don’t take my word on that). Not nearly so romantic, but more practical.
If these are truly the old American chestnuts, the trees are supposed to grow to a possible height of 150 feet. They are deciduous and a member of the beech family, like the oak, although they grow much faster than the oak. In the nineteen years I have owned this farm, my chestnut trees don’t appear to have grown at all. This makes me suspicious that they are not American chestnuts, but some kind of foreign invaders, maybe Chinese or Japanese chestnuts, which look like them but are more resistant to the fungus. I’ll let you know more about these mystery trees as I find out more.
Lewis Donohew retired from the University of Kentucky College of Communications in 1999 after nearly 35 years of service and having earned a national reputation as a communications scholar and researcher. Now down on his farm growing grapes and living close to the earth, he contemplates issues of the day from a lifetime of experience and a love of the land.