A Chestnut Comeback

The Future Looks Bright For These Once Blight-Stricken Trees

John Grossman
9 min read
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A century after the discovery of a devastating blight, a fabled fruit, yes, fruit, is on the road to recovery.

By the year of my birth, 1951, an icon of the Eastern forest, a tree beloved for its arboreal majesty, its incomparable lumber, and the toothsome bounty it dropped to the ground each autumn had all but disappeared from the American landscape. Like most Americans, I'd eaten and enjoyed roasted chestnuts—imported chestnuts–around the holidays many years, but never seen a chestnut tree. Imagine: an Italian never gazing at an olive tree. So when I heard of some mature chestnut trees within a couple hours drive, I made a few calls and soon found myself headed for southwestern Connecticut, eager to learn more about this much forgotten and misunderstood fruit.

Yes, fruit. Though sold with walnuts and hazelnuts and named as if kin, the chestnut is not a nut, but a fruit. And healthful like a fruit: high in complex carbohydrates, low in fat (less than 2 percent, versus as much as 50 percent for some nuts), and easy on the calories. Eat an ounce of macadamias and you down 210 calories; an ounce of walnuts, 188 calories; hazelnuts, 180 calories; cashews, 170 calories; peanuts, 166 calories. An ounce of naturally sweet chestnuts contains only 54 calories! Seventeenth century English intellectual John Evelyn sung other praises, calling them “delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned.”

Joseph Cavaliere, a grower in the Connecticut town of Bethany, considers chestnuts an honorable way to help fill his days in retirement. A faculty barber at nearby Yale University, like his father before him, Cavaliere retired 19 years ago at age 65, by which time he had a smattering of 10-year-old chestnut trees on his 40-acre property. Eager to do his part in a return of the chestnut to the American landscape, he now tends 106 chestnut trees. All hybrids that cross surviving American chestnuts from the nearby Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station with blight-resistant Chinese varieties, his trees range in size from one-foot saplings to head-tilting 50-footers. He loves showing them off.

Cavaliere greets me wearing a green windbreaker with the logo of the Northern Nut Growers Association on the front and the words “Let's Grow Nuts Together” on the back. He sells his annual October harvest to nine area natural food stores. His best year he grossed about $1,500 on an 800-pound harvest. In 2003, he made nothing. Winds exceeding 60 mph, first from Hurricane Isabel, then from a second, untimely storm, blew virtually all of his crop to the ground prematurely, unfit for the table, still tightly enclosed inside their distinctive, porcupine-like burs. Normally, the ripe fruit falls from opened burs, typically a trio or pair of mahogany hued chestnuts per prickly pod.

“How many burs would a tree this size produce?” I ask, pointing to a 10-foot tree. “Maybe three dozen,” Cavaliere says. “But each year you get more, of course, maybe as much as 70 to 80 pounds of nuts per tree.”

Compare that with 19th century accounts of single tree harvests of as much as a ton of chestnuts and you begin to appreciate the bounty that rained to the forest floor when the American chestnut, Castanea dentate, extended from Maine to Georgia over much the same terrain as the Appalachian Trail and as far west as Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The trees stood so numerous that in June, when they bloomed yellow-white, chestnut-filled forests like the Blue Ridge Mountains seemed almost snow-clad. Known as the redwoods of the East, chestnuts commonly reached heights of 100 feet and often diameters in excess of 10 feet. Blessed with straight trunks and easy to mill, rot-resistant wood, a chestnut tree was a lumberman's dream. Until the second half of the 20th century, pianos and pipe organs, fine furniture, log cabins and plenty of still-standing telephone poles and fence rails were fashioned of chestnut.

Chestnut-fattened hogs produced delectably sweet hams and bacon. And chestnuts fed and supported untold Appalachian families, who counted on this autumn forest find as an annual cash crop to help make ends meet. By the railroad car, chestnuts chugged into cities like Philadelphia and New York, where, cooked by street vendors over hot coals, they became a popular chilly weather treat, and, of course, the opening line of a beloved Christmas carol. Even the tree's oval, serrated leaves got put to use. Folk remedies suggested a tea made from chestnut leaves would help quell a cough, and the itch of poison ivy would subside when daubed with the juice of the leaves. Chestnut leaves also made it into the mattresses of some country folk, where their crinkling prompted the expression “talking beds.”

Those days, sadly, didn't last. In 1904 invasive cankers were spotted on chestnut trees lining the avenue at the Bronx Zoo. The warning was akin to the iceberg sighting off the bow of the Titanic eight years hence. It made no difference. Like the fortunate in Titanic lifeboats, who watched their “unsinkable” ship go down, Americans grieved as they witnessed an ecological horror: millions of chestnut trees cut in advance of the spreading blight or felled because of it.

In far too many chestnut chronicles that date mistakenly signals the arrival of the devastating blight. Sandra Anagnostakis, an agricultural scientist and chestnut expert at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Hamden, knows better. “If you read the old literature, it's clear the blight was here in the 1800s,” she says. “My guess is it came in 1882 in a shipment of 1,000 grafted Japanese chestnuts to northern New Jersey.”

The crippling fungus, she explains, spreads tree to tree, typically carried on the paws or fur of animals or feathers of birds, entering its new host at a break in the bark. First shriveling the bark, the blight moves inward, afflicting the tree's inner cambium layer, which is responsible for new cell growth. “See that orange stuff breaking through?” says Anagnostakis, pointing to an acne-like profusion of tiny bumps on a head-high canker attacking a five-inch diameter trunk in a big stand of trees at the experiment station. “That's the fungus.”

When it became clear, as American chestnuts withered and died, that Asian imports appeared resistant to the blight, a forest replacement seemed obvious. But the Asian varieties grew only as high as 60 feet, and couldn't compete for sunlight against the much taller oaks. So crossbreeding began, in an attempt to combine the blight resistant genes of Chinese chestnuts with the trunk and fruit producing genes of the native species.

And here in this very grove of trees, Anagnostakis, who is known worldwide as The Chestnut Lady, sought an antidote to the blight. Nowhere on the continent do so many American chestnut trees stand so closely together. In 1975 she planted 70 seedlings from native chestnuts in Michigan and Wisconsin that remained outside the spread of the blight. They started growing well, but by 1978, cankers began appearing. That's when Anagnostakis initiated a program of biocontrol, seeking to fight fire with fire so to speak, by taming the fungus with a virus. No small task, for one by one, each appearing canker had to be inoculated by hand with the virus.

The measure made no difference to about a third of the trees. Like so many American chestnuts before them, they withered and died back to a stump, and continue to this day, like many doomed chestnuts with roots unaffected by the fungus, to continually resprout, rising like an arboreal Sisyphus only to wither far short of maturity for the nut production necessary for propagation. Many nearby trees, however, beat back the blight, and continued to grow and flower and produce nuts. “To be any good, the biocontrol has to spread by itself,” notes Anagnostakis, explaining they stopped inoculating the trees in the early '80s. “So you can see, it is spreading.”

Such biocontrol efforts and continued cross breeding programs should gradually begin to return the chestnut to America's landscape a century after its disappearance. Meantime, a fledgling U.S. chestnut industry is sending American-grown chestnuts to market. No threat yet to the world's big chestnut growing nation's, led by China, Korea, Italy, Turkey and Japan, in that order, U.S. chestnut production currently accounts for less than 1 percent of the world's total. And very very little of that harvest is in native American chestnuts. The biggest U.S. orchards, in California, produce European varieties. Orchards in Ohio and Iowa and Delaware are planted in either Chinese or Chinese-American hybrids. Only in Michigan, which boasts American chestnut trees that survived the blight, and where the town of Cadillac this October held its fourth annual chestnut festival, are chestnut orchards lined with native American trees.

Some three-dozen of Michigan's estimated 100 commercial chestnut growers have formed a co-operative. Members have as few as 25 trees and as many as 2,500 trees, says Dennis Fulbright, a chestnut expert in the department of plant pathology at Michigan State University, explaining that so far, all told, the co-op members produce no more than a single, big California chestnut ranch. Fulbright recently helped the cooperative get a grant that enabled it to import a $100,000 Italian-made peeling machine. Standing 50 feet long and 16 feet high, the machine subjects the harvested chestnuts first to burning, then mechanical thrashing, finally soaking and scrubbing to remove both the shell and bothersome inner casing. It's hoped this value-added process will, by saving consumers the necessary step of removing the shells, make chestnuts much more accessible to Americans, who generally don't think of them as anything more than a snack. “It will be like a brand new food falling from the sky,” says Fulbright.

Beyond peeling and eating out of hand, chestnuts have many uses in the kitchen. They rise to storied heights as marrons glacé, a candied treat of the Italian Piedmont and the French royal palace and add a wonderfully rich and sweet flavor to all manner of dishes. Added to stuffing they'll ennoble any holiday bird. They pair well with asparagus and Brussels sprouts. You can boil them and mash them with potatoes. Or mash them and simmer them with a bit of sautéed onion and celery and milk and have yourself a wonderfully rich bowl of soup without the extra calories of cream. “Chestnuts are extremely versatile,” says Chef Mario Batali, “they combine well with many ingredients, especially those with a little acidity and fat.”

When I cook with them these days, I think they taste even better now that I can picture the trees they grew on.

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