Species Spotlight: American Chestnut

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Rock Creek Park

Eastern North American forests are profoundly changed because of a fungus that attacks the American chestnut tree.


Created by Grace Novak and Abby Cox, Explore Natural Communities Interns Summer 2015, NatureServe.

Sounds: Typewriter, by tamskp; News Intro, by Maximilien (soundbible.com).

Music: Our Story Begins, by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: Attribution 3.0

Photo: American Chestnut with Chestnut Blight, by citizen-times.com.



Podcast time: 2:01 minutes

"A disease of devastating proportions has swept the nation!"

Such were the headlines in the early 1900's as the chestnut blight fungus worked its way across eastern North America, leaving only the dead and dying of its tree victims behind. The fungus was accidentally introduced to the forest through Japanese chestnut tree shipments to the United States. This deadly fungus dramatically transformed the composition of eastern and mid-Atlantic forests.

Native to Rock Creek Park, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is now rare as a mature tree due to this disease. Previously a dominant tree in the forests of the eastern United States, the American chestnut was known for its rot-resistant lumber and production of wildlife-supporting chestnuts. It was an essential component of eastern U.S. forest ecosystems, providing food for a wide variety of wildlife, like bears, deer, and the now extinct passenger pigeon. People harvested the chestnuts for food and built cabins from the logs. It is even speculated that chestnuts were eaten at the first Thanksgiving!

It's estimated that the chestnut blight killed about 4 billion trees. Because the root system of the tree has some resistance against the infection and there are viruses that attack the fungus, you may see the American chestnut as a young shoot growing from root crowns or bases in Rock Creek Park. Unfortunately, few of these shoots reach the reproductive stage to produce chestnuts before being killed by the fungus.

While the restoration of the American chestnut to our forests is still a far-off goal, some organizations like the American Chestnut Foundation work to seek out and create hybrid, blight-resistant American chestnut trees. Maybe one day, this proud tree will thrive in our nation's parks once again.

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