Roasting (and Restoring) Chestnuts

By Kat Deely

320px-American_Chestnut“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Jack Frost nipping at your nose….” 

These words invoke every shiver of childhood anticipation for Christmas morning. Family time, feasting time, vacation time, and of course, presents time. I’ve been hearing these words sung every holiday season since before I can remember, and they have magically dropped me into a snow-globe world. So, it is with a bit of humility that I must admit something. I’ve never roasted chestnuts on an open fire. I’ve never roasted chestnuts on anything. I’ve never eaten a chestnut! And I bet I’m not alone. So how is it, this iconic Christmas classic’s first line is complete balderdash to the holiday seasons we know today?

The American Chestnut, Castenea dentata, once stood as the matriarch of the forests east of the Mississippi. Large and looming, their grandeur mostly exists through the reincarnations of the wood – furniture, barrels, wainscoting, shingles. The nuts covered the forest floor providing abundant feast for squirrels and humans alike. The trees were larger than any in the eastern forests today, providing ample material with which to build. And then 1900 happened.

The American Chestnut was so popular, people began to import Japanese Chestnuts. The introduction of the Asian trees brought a deadly blight to the American cousins. Over the course of a few decades, nearly all the American Chestnuts perished. In mid-Atlantic states chestnuts counted one in every four trees. And now, just one is a rare sighting.

But American chestnuts still exist, a few individuals are able to reach fruiting age before succumbing to the disease – long enough to get the next generation seeded. The American Chestnut Foundation in North Carolina is cross breeding American Chestnuts with its blight-resistant cousin in an effort to re-establish this native matriarch.

Occasionally on a stroll in the woods, you may encounter a leaf. It’s not a beech. It’s not a birch. And it’s not a chestnut oak. Larger and more heavily toothed on its edges, it’s an American Chestnut. Silently persevering against all odds. Just waiting for an opportunity to once again establish its reign, and prove our holiday tribute true.