The American chestnut tree was the once dominant giant of the Southern Appalachians. This tree formerly ranged from Maine to Mississippi, and in the Southern Appalachians it grew to massive proportions. The fruit of this tree was very important.
Chestnut acorns were the staple food for everything from bears to birds. Of course, humans ate them, too. Remember the words from the Christmas carol, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” But the tree also provided some of the best wood for everyday use by pioneers. It was also coveted by the timber companies that harvested the Smokies.
Just as the days of settlers in the Smokies are gone, the dominance of the mighty chestnut is gone, too. In the early 1900s, Asian chestnut trees were imported to the United States, bringing a fungus with them. The Asian trees had developed immunity to the fungus, but the American chestnut was helpless. Before long, chestnuts were dying in the Northeast, and the blight worked its way south, reaching the South in the 1920s. Two decades later, the day of the chestnut was over.
But there is hope. To this day, chestnut trees sprout from the roots of the ancients, growing up but always succumbing to the Asian blight. Hopefully, these chestnuts are building a resistance to the blight. Scientists are expediting this process and experiments are under way to graft American chestnut trees with the Asian chestnuts in an effort to develop a blight resistant American chestnut.
However, there are still giant trees in Tennessee. One place is Albright Grove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, a north facing slope varies between 3,100 and 3,400 feet, creating ideal conditions for a Southern Appalachian cove hardwood forest. Deep, rich and moist soils harbor not only tree growth but overall one of the temperate climate’s most diverse plant communities.
The dominant trees are hemlock, buckeye, Carolina silverbell, tulip trees, beech trees and yellow birch. Before you imagine a continuous stand of giant trees, realize authentic old-growth woodland is not an agglomeration of even aged trees. On the contrary, even aged trees are a sign of disturbance.
An old growth forest will have many big trees, along with younger trees that grow when they get the chance. A growth opportunity is created when a big tree falls, creating a light gap. Young trees sprout in this light gap and other already somewhat grown trees thrive in the additional sun.
Other times, in the dim of the dark forest, trees gain foothold on nurse logs. Nurse logs are already dead, fallen and decaying trees that allow a seedling to gain root, then feed the young trees with the energy contained within the decaying log. Later, the new trees grow and spread roots around the fallen log. Sometime later, the nurse log entirely returns to the soil and the newly grown tree looks as if it grew up with legs. Trees are continually growing and dying, as older trees succumb to lightning strikes, disease or old age, creating a mosaic of all aged trees.
Despite the fall of the mighty chestnut, our forests continue to grow. And chestnuts all over, in the wild and in experimental farms, continue to fight the chestnut blight. One day, long after our lifetimes, the chestnut will once again tower above our Southern Appalachian forests.
Johnny Molloy is the author of several outdoors guidebooks. Visit www.johnnymolloy.com.