An inspiring US campaign to restore the mighty chestnut to its eastern forests points the way to saving at-risk species in the UK
If you move south through the US Appalachian region, between New York and Georgia, you get a feel for what Bill Bryson described in A Walk In The Woods as “mile after endless mile of dark, deep, silent woods”. Chestnut country once occupied some of the most spectacular wooded landscapes in the world, from the Shenandoah valley and the Catskills to Tennessee’s Smoky mountains. It is deep-gorge and clear-river country, where an understory of vibrant dogwood gives way to an imposing hemlock, a tulip tree or an exhilarating view. But something is amiss. When I visited last autumn, these woods would have been littered with fallen nuts from the magnificent American chestnut (Castanea dentata) – but for the blight that erased 4 billion trees from the landscape.
Just under a century ago, the American chestnut disappeared from the vast eastern forests of the US. A broadleaf of immense size and distribution, the chestnut suffered catastrophic decimation by the inadvertent introduction of an Asian blight, Cryphonectria parasitica. The blight arrived in 1904, on ornamental Japanese chestnut trees imported to furnish New York’s expanding Bronx zoo. Infection swept north and south, and by the 1950s the great “redwood of the east” – whose fruit was relied upon by herbivores such as the wild turkey, bluejay and red squirrel – all but vanished, a tragedy considered one of the greatest ecological disasters to hit the world’s forests. Thankfully, however, the story did not end there: following a monumental conservational effort, the chestnut now stands on the brink of return.