By BECKY JOHNSON
Staff writer The Enterprise Mountaineer
If ever there was a tree designed with early
Appalachian settlers in mind, it was the American chestnut.
It grew tall and straight, and it was easy
to split cracking evenly and predictable and making perfect shingles and split
rail fences, The tree was strong and durable, yet light and its even grain
meant boards did not warp when drying.
The American chestnut was
termite-resistant and did not rot in damp soil, making it good for fence posts
and railroad ties and telegraph poles. Its beautiful color made it a favored
wood for interior paneling, cabinets, bedposts and staircases.
Pigs where turned out every fall to fatten
on the threes plentiful nut harvest. The nuts fell so thick on the forest floor
they where racked up and sold by the wagon load for flour and sugar and stored
all winter as food.
One out of every four trees used to be a
chestnut. They grew up to 120 feet tall and more than 12 feet wide, making
When the chestnut blight hit the Southern
Appalachians in the 1920s killing every tree in its path, it was like having
the rug yanked out from under the dinner table for many Appalachian settlers.
They not only lost the best tree they had for making their own homes, fences, barns,
and furniture, but they also lost the income from the nuts they had depended
When you think of the value American
chestnut had for split rail fences, for log homes, barns, all your furniture,
your musical instruments, from the casket to the cradle, said Paul Gallimore
of Sandy Mush. Its a beautiful wood. Its got such versatility as indoor and
toured his Sandy Mush property, circling a 85-year-old barn made of chestnut,
pointing out old chestnut fence post and admiring the still glowing chestnut
paneling on the interior walls of a 1917 home.
Behind Gallimores house is an old cabin
make of hand-hewed chestnut logs.
We found a number of different stumps
from the American chestnut, Gallimore said, making a sweeping gesture at the
woods that covered the hillside behind the home. It would have been
everywhere. There were some places here that had 100 acres of pure American
chestnut. It was the dominant tree species here up until the beginning of the
The largest American chestnut ever
documented in North America, with a diameter of 17 feet, was in the Francis
Cove area of Haywood County.
Chestnut trees were rot- and
termite-resistant because they had high tannin levels. Tannin, which is present
in most trees in smaller doses, was the chemical used to tan leather. It was
leached from the bark and wood of the chestnut and made into a dark, bitter,
brine. The leather was soaked in the mixture for several days.
Chestnut had an incredible value because
of its tannin, Gallimore said. The tannin value of the chestnut exceeded the
value of the wood.
One of the Gallimores goals today is
reseeding the mountains with American chestnut. Gallimore runs the Longbranch
Environmental Education Center just over the Haywood County line in Sandy Mush
and has been a leader in the American Chestnut Reforestation Project.
the last 20 years, scientists and chestnut enthusiasts with the American
Chestnut Foundation have been working to come up with an American chestnut tree
that is blight resistant.
The blight came to America on a Chinese
chestnut in the early 1900s and spread quickly, claiming all the American
chestnuts of the Southern Appalachians by 1930. While Chinese chestnuts are
blight-resistant, they are short, knotty, spreading trees, with none of the
timber quality that make the American chestnut useful.
When the blight killed American chestnuts,
it left the root of many trees intact, Gallimore said. Tiny American chestnut
shoots can be found sprouting up from the trunk of a fallen American chestnut.
The shoots only grow a few years before succumbing to the blight, but have been
important in breeding a new blight-resistant tree.
Scientist have been crossing American
chestnut trees with Chinese chestnuts to get a tree that has all the admired
qualities of American chestnut, but has just enough Chinese chestnut in it to
make it blight-resistant.
By genetically crossing American chestnut
with Chinese chestnuts, scientist have ended up with a tree that is about 85
percent American chestnut, according to scientists with the American Chestnut
Foundation. Last month, 18 of these trees were planted in Haywood County in the
Rough Creek watershed area above Canton. The trees will be monitored to see how
well they grow and if they stay blight-free.
Another group of American chestnuts
about 130 was planted by Gallimore on a private preserve in Beaverdam in
November. That group also will be monitored for its blight resistance. If all
goes well, Gallimore hopes landowners will be able to get seedlings from these
trees and plant them on their own property.
interested in letting landowners know these trees are available, Gallimore
said. Our goal is to see the trees get planted out.
It will be another ten years before there
are large numbers of blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings ready to pass
out to landowners.
2010 and afterwards, well be shipping
seeds to normal people, said Forest McGregor, development director with the
American Chestnut Foundation. There were 4 to 10 billion American chestnuts
killed by the blight. We will consider our project finished when there are
blight-resistant trees out there making their own babies. Weve got to plant
millions and millions of trees to get to that point.
The hope is that, once the seedlings are
ready, people will take them and plant them. Those trees will drop their own
seeds, as well as cross pollinate with Chinese chestnuts, and eventually reclaim
their place as king of the Appalachian forest and the most useful of all trees