At the time Robert Wells and Mel Torme wrote the holiday song about "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," the once-plentiful American chestnut tree was almost extinct. Today, a few decomposing stumps, occasionallyattended by valiant, but doomed growth from living roots, are all that remain of the species in Howard County.
In what was an immense ecological disaster, the American chestnut, Castenea dentata, was all but eradicated from the Eastern United States by a fungal blight during the first half of this century. This beautiful native tree once furnished, through its sweet nuts, food for countless species ofanimals as well as for humans. Some naturalists have estimated that up to three of every five trees in the local forests of 300 years agowere chestnuts.
The original natural range of the American chestnut tree stretched from Maine to Alabama, the tree being especially prevalent in the Appalachians. The towering trees -- sometimes 90 feet tall -- had long, finely-toothed leaves that turned bright yellow in the fall. There were stringy, yellow catkins in the late spring. Bristly 2- to 3-inchburrs appeared in early fall, popping open at their seams after the first frost to reveal two or three shiny, oval brown nuts. These thin-shelled nuts fell to the ground where squirrels, bears, pigs, worms and other foraging animals devoured them.
The first colonists found these plentiful trees also provided straight, durable wood for buildings and fences. Its beautiful light grain enhanced furniture and cabinet-making.
It was one of the first species early loggers soughtout in the ever-expanding frontier. In the 1820s, 25 percent of all hardwoods cut for lumber was American chestnut. The trees had become appreciated for their ornamental qualities, lining the streets of eastern towns and cities. By 1900, it was the most important deciduous tree in the eastern United States.
In the 1920s, the devastating blight made its first appearance in Maryland. It is believed that the fungus causing the disease was introduced into the country through importation of infected Chinese chestnut trees to the New York BotanicalGardens in 1895. It quickly spread by way of airborne spores. Like the soon-to-follow Dutch elm disease, Gypsy moth and now, the anthracnose disease of American dogwoods, the chestnut blight made rapid inroads into Maryland's forests. By 1940, most of the big trees in HowardCounty were gone.
Surprisingly, there are some healthy specimens of American chestnut far from its original range. Pioneers, travelingwest, carried the tree's seeds with them for planting in their new homes. These imported orchards remain as isolated stands near the Mississippi River and farther west, beyond the reach of the blight.
The chestnuts sold here in markets at holiday time are of a European species, imported from Italy, the largest producer of chestnuts worldwide. These nuts, know as marrons in France, are the source of endless lore and recipes in the European tradition. Candied chestnuts, marrons glace, requiring 16 separate steps to create, were a favorite of Louis XIV.
It is the Chinese chestnut, unknowing bearer of our native tree's downfall, that fares best in Howard County these days. In fact, there are several varieties available for use in yards and orchards. This tree, Castenea mollissima, unlike the towering American tree, is a shorter, rounded tree, attaining 30 to 40 feet at maturity. Although it doesn't have the timber qualities of the American chestnut,it does produce delicious, sweet nuts. They are quite resistant, butnot immune, to chestnut blight.
The Chinese chestnut prefers acidsoil and can be quite drought-hardy once established. These are attractive traits for a tree here in central Maryland.
At least two trees, of the same or different cultivars, should be planted together for best pollination. The tree needs little pruning and produces its first crop in just three to five years, a few nuts at first, with larger amounts coming in later years.
Sixty pounds of nuts from a 10-year-old tree and 100 pounds from a mature one are not unusual statistics. Local growers report that a hasty harvest is a must, or tiny worms and squirrels will beat you to it.
The chestnut has been the subject of many experiments in hybridization. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was trying up until the 1960s when, having developed and rejected 10,000 new hybrids, they threw in the towel.
Independent hybridizers still refuse to give up, however, and the search goes on for a suitble replacement for the American chestnut. Some claim to havefound it -- a cultivar called "Revival" was the first chestnut to receive a U.S. patent -- but skepticism remains.
Despite the song's lyrics about roasting over an open fire, experienced chestnut consumers seem to prefer the cookie-sheet-in-the-oven technique. After cutting a small "x" in the flat side of the nut for steam ventilation, bake the nuts at 350 degrees for about one hour. Remove, peel and enjoy.
Wherever your chestnuts come from, the store or your own tree, itis interesting to remember the American chestnut. It was once a treasured resource that influenced not only the holiday season, but the everyday lives of our ancestors.