This past weekend I took a snowy walk with a Nature Foundation (at Wintergreen) naturalist down the closed Blue Ridge Parkway. While learning about the positive effects of the creation of the parkway on the region, I discovered that its creation was related to the fate of the American Chestnut tree.

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I had vague memories from adolescence of hearing about a blight that killed off the chestnuts, more in relation to the unavailability of wormy chestnut lumber, a really pretty wood for specialty building that has unique insect hole patterns decorating throughout, but I never knew anything about the tree’s importance in central Appalachia. I actually never thought about it either way until now, which is unfortunate because it is impossible to understand the ecology of the Blue Ridge region, which is such a big part of my life, without knowing the story of the American Chestnut. But better late than never, right?! We are all working on ecoliteracy!

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A centuries old chestnut stump

The American Chestnut is a fast growing hardwood tree native to the mountains of eastern North America. It was valued economically for its lumber as well as its extremely prolific chestnut crop (for roasting on open fires of course–and feeding animals) which provided a cash crop for Appalachian families. One mature tree could produce up to 1,000 pounds of chestnuts! They were one of the fastest growing hardwoods, growing straight and tall (up to 120 feet and 14 feet in diameter) and were highly rot resistant which made the wood valuable for a wide variety of building needs. In addition to the economic value, the tree bark produced tannins for curing leather, and it is said the leaves were medicinal. Before the early 1900s, this beautiful tree accounted for over 25% of the forest in central Appalachia. There were so many, that it is remembered that in the spring when in bloom, the white flowers covering the tree tops on the ridges looked like snow.

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When in season, the chestnut harvests were so prolific that farmers would send their livestock up into the hills to forage for nuts. To keep livestock semi contained while foraging, they built stone walls called pig walls. Portions of  these 200+ year old pig walls can be found all around the Blue Ridge, what craftsmanship!

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Snowy Pig Wall

In 1905 things changed. The Chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo began to die and it was discovered that an invasive  blight causing fungus had entered the country from Asia. It killed the trees at an alarming rate and took botanists by total surprise. The blight spread as fast as 50 miles a year and it is estimated that between 1910 and 1950 3.5 billion American chestnut trees were killed! The economic impact of the blight on the Blue Ridge region of Appalachia was devastating. The humans had lost their cash crop, but the animals had also lost a highly nutritious major food source, which in turn affected hunting and food supplies.

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A closer look down the Chestnut stump. This wood was not rotten at all.

Now when walking along the Appalachian Trail or hiking trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway you may find the 200 year old (rot resistant) stumps, which were chopped down a century ago. These remnants of the historically large groves of American Chestnut trees tell the story of the native people and settlers who survived off their bounty for centuries prior to the blight.

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That is where the Blue Ridge Parkway’s role comes in. The economic devastation of the blight was closely followed by the Depression. It was during this time that FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC did lots of fantastic work around the country that we still enjoy today. In conjunction with the WPA, many skilled craftsmen and artists were put to work on jobs that benefitted the entire nation and building the Blue Ridge Parkway was one of these jobs. It began in 1935 and took over 52 years years to build the 469 mile road along the Blue Ridge–connecting Shenandoah National Forest in VA to great Smokey Mountains National Park in NC. The Parkway is now maintained by the National Park Service and is really a treasure of the region that provides economic benefits through tourism, but also importantly, provides us with access to wild nature and experiences of natural beauty, cultural history, and an opportunity to connect to place, learn stories of the land, experience wildlife in nearly pristine settings, and remember the importance of ecological responsibility.

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Returning to the Chestnut, all hope is not lost. After a century of near extinction, a recent breakthrough has been made in resistance through backcross breeding. The fungus lives in the bark, not the roots, so Chestnut trees will sprout and grow into about 4 ft shrubs, but the fungus will kill them before they get large enough to reproduce. Through experiments in cross and back breeding with Chinese Chestnut trees, American Chestnuts can be made more resistant. If it works, and repopulation is possible, the ecological stability of the Blue Ridge’s forests could return to balance once again! Keep your fingers crossed and you may once again be able to forage for chestnuts and see Chestnut “snow” capped ridges in spring while you hike!

I discovered in the video links below that my Seed Swap question answer from last Thursday’s post may be evidence of a blight that damaged, but didn’t kill that tree. Can anyone confirm that?

Where is your favorite part of the Blue Ridge Parkway?

Seeds to Sprout:

Get involved in American Chestnut monitoring with your students through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Watch this great (short) oral history documentary of the American Chestnut Tree in Southern Appalachia that looks at conservation, ecology, monitoring, and the new breakthroughs for reforestation. Part 1 of 3 features great interviews with scientists and students as well as old timers. Part 2 is full of old timer’s stories, wormy chestnut, and the evidence of the blight response in back breeding, and Part 3 is on the restoration of Chestnut trees to the forest and features some great banjo playing!

Explore the resources of the American Chestnut Foundation or get involved in the restoration process and plant your own!

Plan a summer trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway with BlueRidgeParkway.org!

The National Park Service‘s site for the Parkway

Support the Parkway through the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation

Next time you’re up at Wintergreen, visit the Nature Foundation and go for a hike!

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