Chestnuts were present in North America during the Eocene Epoch, beginning over 50 Million years ago. During the Pleistocene Ice Age 18,000 years ago, chestnut was pushed south as the temperate forests retreated to the warmer climate near the Gulf of Mexico. As the glaciers receded, chestnut trees moved north as the temperate forest expanded. The chestnut tree became one of the dominant species in eastern North America from what is now southern Maine, growing west to the Great Lakes and south to the Gulf Coast. The heart of the range was the Appalachians, where in some areas it made up almost 100% of the forest. In the cool, moist, temperate rainforest of the Smoky Mountains, trees grew 12′ or more in diameter, and over 100′ tall. The incredible mast production of the chestnut was the primary food for all wildlife and game species – bear, deer, elk, squirrel, the huge flocks of turkey, and was a key food for Passenger Pigeons.
After the last ice age aboriginal humans first colonized America via the Bering Sea Land Bridge. It is not surprising that archaeologists find chestnut remains in many excavations all over the east, as the bountiful harvest provided an important carbohydrate food supply during the fall that could be stored through the winter. Unlike acorns, which had to be boiled for hours to remove the bitter tannin so they could be eaten, chestnuts were sweet right from the tree.
The early explorers such as Hernando de Soto and colonists of America found this extensive primeval forest. Early accounts described the nuts as knee-deep under the trees during harvest! The rot-resistant timber was also prized, for the trees could be cut, and sprouts from the stumps regrew rapidly into straight-grained lumber. J. Russell Smith, the famous plant explorer, said “By the time a white oak acorn grows a baseball bat, a chestnut stump grows a railroad tie”.
Chestnut became an important food source in the fall for the early European settlers and was a key food source for the game they harvested. American chestnuts are small, but have a rich, nutty flavor. This gave rise to the culture of eating chestnuts in the autumn at Thanksgiving and Christmas and was memorialized in song and literature. Chestnuts were gathered in the forests, as well as some small groves were planted to feed the growing urban population as the country developed. They were an important source of food for livestock, and hogs and cattle were fattened for the winter on the prolific crop. Wild trees were tended like orchards and having a grove was a valuable asset on your land. In the mountains, where the chestnut covered mile after mile of forest, the nuts were gathered by families and traded with the stores for goods, who shipped the nuts into the cities. There were not many things in the mountains besides moonshine to sell for cash, and chestnuts were an important part of the mountain economy every fall.
“When chestnuts were ripe I laid up half a bushel for winter. It was very exciting at that season to roam the then boundless chestnut woods of Lincoln — they now sleep their long sleep under the railroad — with a bag on my shoulder, and a stick to open burs with in my hand, for I did not always wait for the frost, amid the rustling of leaves and the loud reproofs of the red squirrels and the jays, whose half-consumed nuts I sometimes stole, for the burs which they had selected were sure to contain sound ones. Occasionally I climbed and shook the trees. They grew also behind my house, and one large tree, which almost overshadowed it, was, when in flower, a bouquet which scented the whole neighborhood, but the squirrels and the jays got most of its fruit; the last coming in flocks early in the morning and picking the nuts out of the burs before they fell, I relinquished these trees to them and visited the more distant woods composed wholly of chestnut. These nuts, as far as they went, were a good substitute for bread.” – Henry David Thoreau
However, in 1904, a bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was accidentally introduced from China into New York City that killed off virtually the entire population of American Chestnuts throughout its range from Maine to Georgia. The Chestnut Blight was easily the greatest ecological disaster in American history, though it is almost forgotten today. Over 30 million acres of chestnut forest were killed in 40 years! Much of this loss occurred during the Great Depression, so the impact on both the mountain people that ate chestnuts, and the game that depended on it in the fall, was doubly devastating.
Few alive today remember what these forests were like, just like the WWII veterans, most are gone now. My grandfather Dr. Robert Dunstan, described the Smoky Mountains being like a sea of white with chestnut blossoms in the early summer. What remains of the original chestnut forest exists today as wood in houses, barns and furniture. As the trees died out, they were logged and many of the areas of the country that were built during the 1930s were constructed of chestnut lumber. Today it is hard to find chestnut wood – it has to be obtained from salvagers and recyclers from old buildings being torn down.
America today is the only country in the world that can grow chestnuts that does not have an extensive chestnut industry. This is in great part due to the loss of the American chestnut. Unless you are of recently European or Asian heritage, chestnuts have become lost in our memory. Americans have not grown up with chestnuts as part of their food culture. Everyone can sing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” but few have ever eaten a chestnut, especially the younger generations.
Today we have cultivars of chestnuts that allow the establishment of an American chestnut industry, and access to unique products made with chestnuts. We are at a time of rebirth of chestnut as an important food and wildlife tree for North America again.