The American chestnut, once the most prominent tree in West Virginia’s forest, was felled in the early 20th century by a blight fungus imported from the Orient. Spores from the chestnut blight fungus float through the air or are carried by birds and animals to wounds in the bark of chestnut trees. The fungus grows through the bark until the tree is girdled. The resulting bark canker with orange blisters blocks sap flow to the leaves, causing the tree above the canker to die.
Loss of the American chestnut was hard felt in West Virginia, the only state completely within the tree’s natural range. One fourth of the trees in West Virginia were once American chestnuts, but by 1929 live chestnuts were becoming rare because of the blight. American chestnut trees provided West Virginia with 118 million board feet of lumber in 1919, not counting the vast quantity of timber cut for telephone poles, railroad cross ties, tan bark, wood pulp, and fuel. The nuts were a valuable crop, providing feed for wildlife and domestic swine. They provided a tasty treat for humans, as well as an income and the joy of chestnuting for many rural families. As many as 155,092 pounds of nuts were shipped from one railroad station in West Virginia in the fall of 1911.
There is hope for recovering at least part of our lost heritage. The American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation distributes seedlings that have a potential for blight resistance. These all-American intercrosses are produced from large, surviving American chestnut trees that have shown heritable blight resistance. The most resistant intercrosses are available for grafting onto American chestnut rootstocks in their natural environment in the forest. Another group, the American Chestnut Foundation, hybridizes American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts and backcrosses them with American chestnuts to winnow out unwanted traits from Chinese chestnut while retaining blight resistance. Both foundations support research on the dissemination of a virus that debilitates the blight fungus.
This Article was written by John Rush Elkins
Last Revised on June 25, 2012
Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia vol. 5. Richwood: Jim Comstock, 1976.
Roane, Martha K., Gary J. Griffin & John R. Elkins. Chestnut Blight, Other Endothia Diseases, and the Genus Endothia. St. Paul: American Phytopathological Society Press, 1986.
Griffin, Lucille. Battling the Blight. Goldenseal, (Winter 1995).
Cite This Article
Elkins, John Rush "Chestnut Blight." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 25 June 2012. Web. 26 February 2017.