Endangered Tree Takes a Stand at Elachee

by Carol Clark

A humble, quirky little tree grows on the east side of the Visitor Center of the Elachee Nature Science Center, right next to the wooden ramp that borders the Elachee Nature Academy’s Gardens that Teach. This iconic tree serves both as a reminder of an ecological fiasco in U.S. history and a sign of hope for regrowth and renewal. American chestnut husks are covered in prickly spines and stud the tree like pale-green pom-poms in late summer.

The tree is an American chestnut (Castanea dentata). An endangered member of the beech family native to eastern North America, the species once reigned over forests from Maine to Mississippi and north Georgia. It was renowned for its massive size, its strong lumber and tasty chestnuts.

Then the blight hit, around the turn of the 20th century. The chestnut blight was caused by an Asian bark fungus that arrived when Asiatic chestnut trees, resistant to the fungus, were introduced to New York.

“It’s estimated that one out of every four trees in Appalachia was an American chestnut,” says Peter Gordon, Elachee education director. “They were truly magnificent trees. The word was, when one had been felled, four pairs could do square dancing on its trunk. That was how big it was.”

When the blight hit, it spread quickly. “The fungus produces spores and then off those spores go into the wind,” he explains. “It was an early example of how bringing plants or animals to a new place can unwittingly bring in diseases.”

The giant trees held a near-mythical status, sometimes growing more than 100-feet-tall with trunk diameters of more than 10-feet. The wood the trees produced was straight-grained and rot-resistant, making it a preferred species for buildings, furniture, fence posts and railroad ties. In the fall, hogs and cattle and wildlife fattened on the chestnuts the trees dropped. Rural people ate their fill of chestnuts and shipped the rest to cities, where they could be eaten fresh or roasted as a Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday treat.

The blight attacks the American chestnut tree’s cambium layer, where water and nutrients travel up and down. “It basically strangles the tree,” Gordon says. “Little sprouts will come up again but once they grow to a few feet tall, the fungus attacks them again. It’s like the Greek myth where Sisyphus keeps trying to push a boulder up a hill, but it keeps rolling back down when he gets near the top.”

Within a few decades of the blight’s arrival in the United States, an estimated three billion giant American chestnut trees were essentially reduced to shrubs.

“It must have been traumatic when people realized that all these magnificent trees were about to die,” Gordon continues. “They provided a reliable, and essential source of food for wildlife. And they were also important to people living in rural areas. The loss of these trees over such a short period of time was a big deal.”

The specimen at Elachee was a gift from the Georgia Chapter of The American Chestnut Society. Elachee’s American chestnut tree has made it to nearly 20-feet-tall since it was planted about a dozen years ago.

Because of the species’ continued vulnerability, the Elachee tree is a rare and precious resource accessible to the public to observe, study and admire. Since its planting the Elachee chestnut has bloomed and produced nuts on three occasions, including this year. 

By October, American chestnuts turn from bright green to brown, then fall to the ground and break open to reveal a beautiful, round smooth nut inside.How to Spot One

The American chestnut tree has long, slender leaves with saw-tooth edges. The tree produces cascading strands of yellow-beige flowers in early summer. “They look like skeletal fingers dangling down from the twigs,” he describes, explaining that “they also have a rich, deep, earthy smell that attracts a lot of bees and other pollinators.”

The husks of the nuts are covered in prickly spines and stud the tree like pale-green pom-poms in late summer. By October they are turning brown. “They’ll fall to the ground and break open to reveal a beautiful, round smooth nut inside,” Gordon says.

Save the American Chestnut

Efforts are underway to develop blight-resistant American chestnut trees and restore the species to its normal range.

“Elachee’s American chestnut appears to be at least partially resistant to the blight, although it is now showing some signs of it,” shares Gordon.

It has been a race to gather some of this tree’s nuts before the squirrels and deer gobbled them all. Gordon had planned to send chestnuts to researchers at Berry College where this team is studying them as part of the restoration efforts of the American chestnut tree. They recommended instead that Elachee plant the nuts to continue efforts for regrowth and renewal.

View Elachee’s American Chestnut

Plan your visit to Elachee and to see the rare American chestnut tree in person. While at the Nature Center, also enjoy the Trail of Trees exhibit found along the Elachee Visitor Center balcony. Interpretive panels will help you identify different tree species growing in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve which you can easily see from those respective vantage points.