When I was a child, the streets of New York City were full of chestnut men. Fifty and sixty years ago, the pushcart vendors who today might sell hot dogs or falafel sold hot roasted chestnuts. You bought them by the paper bag full. Their tops were cut with crosses so you could peel off the skins.
Their dense, earthy smell sticks in my memory, as smells do. Sour and grubby as the subway, ever-present as the crowds, they were one of New York’s defining mysteries for me, a suburban child.
I didn’t know why the chestnut men were there, and I didn’t know why most of them had disappeared before I moved to the city as an adult. Had I considered the question, I would have guessed the tides of immigration had washed out the old vendors and deposited a new set from places where chestnuts weren’t so well known – and I wouldn’t have been altogether wrong. But another sort of immigration was the real culprit.
Here’s some of what I didn’t know:
Until the turn of the twentieth century, the Northeast and Midwest were covered with chestnut forests. There were more chestnuts than any other kind of tree – they accounted for maybe a quarter of the forest. They were tall, strong, spreading, long-lived trees. Chestnuts were a staple food for Native Americans, they were a staple food for European settlers, and they were a staple food for pigs and other domesticated animals.
At some point, nurserymen began to import Asian chestnuts. I’m still not sure why anyone thought imports were needed, but imported they were, along with the microbes that lived on them. Microorganisms that happily coexisted with Asian chestnuts did not get along well with American chestnuts, and American species couldn’t evolve quickly enough. About 1904, American chestnuts began to die of a blight, or fungus, that had arrived with the Asian chestnut. By mid-century, billions of big trees were dead or dying. By the 1970s, when I moved to New York, they were nearly gone.
Today, American chestnuts still sprout and grow to nut-producing age; then they quickly succumb to the blight and die. There are plenty of young trees but no mature ones. There are also Asian chestnuts growing in North America, but they haven’t repopulated the forests, and more important, they don’t support the insect life that in turn supports the forest birds and mammals. And chestnuts are no longer a staple food, even though every December, as we stroll through the stores, we still hear pleasant songs about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, a Minnesota farmer saw a healthy chestnut tree – one tree! – amid all his dead and dying trees. A single tree with a random mutation that allowed it to resist the blight. He took cuttings from it and grafted it onto Asian rootstock. The American Chestnut Foundation, formed in 1983, began intensively breeding these trees, back-crossing the hybrids with surviving American chestnuts to produce a cultivar that was as much as possible like the old American chestnut but still blight-resistant. Thirty years later, trees from this program are beginning to be introduced to the world. Thousands are now being used to reforest the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund site in Palmerton, Pennsylvania.
In our neighborhood, the folks at the Catskill Native Nursery got hold of some of these restoration chestnuts, and a few weeks ago they wrote about them on their Facebook page. Kim and I ran out and bought two of them, and he planted them in our meadow – the site of an old gravel mine that we’re trying to restore to forest. Next spring, we’ll plant some companions for them – berries and shrubs that do well with chestnuts, ramps and garlic and wild scallions to keep the grasses at bay, native wildflowers to attract pollinators, plants with deep taproots to bring up minerals, clover to add nitrogen to the soil.
We may not live to see the trees produce chestnuts. We probably won’t live to find out whether the trees are truly blight-resistant or whether they can support the other species that depended on the American chestnut. And I know we won’t live long enough to see the trees establish a new forest. But we can hope.
Update: I’ve conflated two entirely different restoration projects. The Dunstan chestnut trees, which we bought, should be blight-resistant and produce good chestnuts that are similar to older American varieties, but they’re hybrids and probably won’t produce many – or any – blight-resistant offspring. You can reproduce them clonally, through cuttings, which is fine for an orchard but not fine for a continent-wide forest. The American Chestnut Foundation is working on creating a stable variety that should be able to repopulate forests. Those aren’t available yet (except in small quantities, in exchange for large donations to the foundation), but they should be available in quantity in the next few years. And that’s when we’ll start trying to regrow the forest.