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Wood of the Month:
Blight Has Devastated American Chestnut

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Castanea dentata of the family Fagaceae

American chestnut, wormy chestnut

Height for chestnut trees varies. Some grew to 100 feet with diameters of 8 to 10 feet. Weight is 30 pounds per cubic feet with a specific gravity of 0.48.

Chestnut is considered difficult to season. It has a tendency to honeycomb and the wood dries unevenly. The wood may stain blue if the material is in contact with ferrous metals. The material is very corrosive to metals when wet. Wood is easy to work with hand or machine tools.

American chestnut (Canstanea dentata), once an important domestic commercial timber, is available on a very limited basis today, usually marketed as wormy chestnut. Uses for the wood include high-end architectural applications such as paneling and moulding, furniture, flooring, desks and office furnishings, coffins and picture frames. Some material is used for decorative veneers.

3.5 Billion Trees Lost to Fungus
Chestnut trees were once one of the most important trees of forests "from Maine south to Florida, from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley," according to the American Chestnut Foundation. "In the heart of its range only a few generations ago a count of trees would have turned up one chestnut for every four oaks, birches, maples and other hardwoods." According to the foundation, some of the ridgetops of the Appalachians were so filled with chestnuts that in early summer, when the trees' white flowers blossomed, "the mountains appeared snow-capped."

Chestnuts were some of the fastest-growing trees in the forest, growing at the same pace as tulip poplars. Adaptable to all kinds of soil and climate, chestnuts routinely topped out at 100 feet and in clear areas they had spreading crowns of up to 100 feet wide.

Now, however, supplies of chestnut are generally scarce and expensive because of the devastation caused by chestnut blight. According to the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation, blight destroyed 3.5 billion American chestnuts in the first 40 years of the 20th Century.

Evidence of the blight and its impact on American trees was first noted in 1904 in New York. Donald Culross Peattie, writing in the book A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, explains: "It is believed that that blight came into this country on Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima), which despite a high percentage of infection show a degree of resistance to it. No immunity existed in our American tree."

In the early days when the blight was first detected, states where chestnut grew mobilized efforts to fight its spread. According to Peattie, New Jersey and Pennsylvania spent large sums of money establishing quarantine lines. Nothing worked. Foresters discovered that spores of the blight are carried by the wind, and the blight had traveled to infect all the chestnuts.

Valued for Beauty and Products
American chestnut trees were prized on many levels. Chestnuts were a favorite boulevard tree and considered one of the most attractive forest trees.

The species also was valued for the nuts it yielded and for the tannin found in the bark. "Native wildlife from birds to bears, squirrels to deer, depended on the tree's abundant crops of nutritious nuts," according to the American Chestnut Foundation. Chestnuts were also an important cash crop for many Appalachian families, who sent the nuts by the railroad car-fulls to New York and other major cities.

Some Supplies Available
Gregory Reistad, president of A.J. Pietsch Co. Inc., a custom woodworking firm in Milwaukee, WI, recently completed the renovation of a suite of offices using wormy chestnut. "We used reclaimed wood, taken from barns and other farm buildings, for the job. We used reclaimed chestnut to make a credenza, desk, paneling, flooring, running trim, crown moulding and other pieces for the office. The client liked the rustic, warm look of the wood and the variations in color from light to the very dark markings," Reistad says.

The material came from a firm called Vintage Log Lumber in Renick, WV, and was purchased through Paxton Wood in Chicago, IL. "When we got the material, it had been cleaned - the paint and nails removed. When you work with reclaimed lumber, you have to be careful of nails in the wood, but most of the nails were noticeable because they left a black mark in the wood," Reistad says.

Reistad says the boards varied in widths from 3 to 10 inches and lengths from 5 to 10 feet. "I pulled material for crown moulding first, taking the longest boards. For flooring we cut a herringbone pattern in random widths and tongue and grooved the material."

The Comeback Effort
Attempts to develop a blight-resistant tree and bring back chestnuts to American forests are underway by such groups as the American Chestnut Foundation, the Great Lakes Chestnut Alliance, the Chattanooga Chestnut Tree Project, and the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation. The ACCF, like other groups, sponsor educational programs and provide seedlings and information on where and how to plant American chestnuts. The group's cooperating growers have planted 68,252 seedlings and approximately 31,570 seednuts from all-American orchards as of April of this year.

Priorities include the development of blight-resistant American chestnuts and economical biological control measures against chestnut blight in the forest. Gary Griffin, a professor at Virginia Tech (which sponsors the ACCF Web site) writes, "It is not beyond the grasp of science to restore the American chestnut to economic importance. It could be accomplished within the next 50 years."


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