Podcast Episodes

The Chestnut Blight


At the turn of the 20th century, the eastern half of the American landscape looked very different than it does today. If you were to hop in a time machine to hike the Appalachian trail in the year 1900 – the wilderness you would find would be entirely different. A tree disease altered America, but a chance at rebirth is taking hold on the site of one of our nation’s greatest tragedies.

1 medium onion
1/4 cup margarine
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 quarts chicken broth
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup unsalted peanuts, chopped
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup water chestnuts

Sauté the onion in margarine. Stir in the flour to make a roux. Once the roux is ready, add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and strain. Add peanut butter and Worcestershire sauce and stir. Hold over
low heat until ready to serve. Garnish with chopped peanuts and water chestnuts.

That’s the Colonial Peanut and Chestnut Soup recipe from the historic Mount Vernon Inn, once part of George and Martha Washington’s estate. Except they wouldn’t have used water chestnuts. The Washington’s farm teemed with towering American chestnut trees. Thomas Jefferson also planted Chestnut trees on his Monticello estate, but he hardly needed to. American chestnut trees once blanketed the east coast.

Up to 100 feet tall and more than 9 feet in diameter, the American variety of chestnut trees were nearly as awe-inspiring as the redwoods of the west coast, and the tree’s natural range stretched from Ontario to Georgia, west through the mountains and highlands to Alabama, and north to the plains of Indiana and Illinois.

The leaves are long and narrow with parallel veins leading to large serrations on the edges. Its straight grain, strength, and rot resistance made the wood unsurpassed for splitting and building most of the early American barns, houses, telephone poles, fencing, and piers. It was lighter than oak, but just as strong. The tree was also the primary source of tannin used to cure leather. But it’s most unique feature was, of course, the edible nut.

Chestnuts were an important part of the diet of colonists, Native Americans, and wildlife alike. It was perfect for roasting over an open fire, or for stuffing a turkey.  Chestnuts were roasted, ground into flour for cakes and bread, and stewed into puddings. Native Americans used chestnut meal with corn to make breads, the leaves to alleviate heart troubles, and sprouts to treat sores. The nuts were taken by the wagonload for rail shipment to big city street corners where they were roasted on vendor carts. Farmers used mature chestnut lots to fatten pigs to bring the highest prices.

The nuts fed billions of birds and mammals. Chestnuts four inches deep on the forest floor were common as the tree’s flowers developed after the spring frost. Bears, deer, turkeys, and most other forest animals, including the now extinct passenger pigeons relied on the annual crop. When a chestnut tree died, it rotted from the inside out, creating the perfect den for the then plentiful bear population.

And just as important as their uses was the striking beauty of a grand, mature Chestnut tree.

An estimated 4 billion huge, ancient trees created dense canopies across the east. Grand trees shaded town squares, and city parks. It was said that a squirrel could travel from Main to Georgia by hopping from Chestnut tree to Chestnut tree, and never touch the ground. In fact, over 25% of all eastern American trees were chestnuts.

They were, quite simply, the most important plant in the United States.

And over the course of 50 years – they vanished.

The Bronx zoo was home to an impressive collection of American Chestnuts, and in 1904, this is where a problem was first discovered. The mature trees that lined the zoo’s avenues began to wilt, large cankers appeared, rupturing the bark, and then the tree’s trunk and upper limbs would die.

Trees in the New York Botanical Garden began to exhibit the same symptoms, and before anyone could figure out why, the mysterious malady infected chestnuts across New England. By 1906, it was reported to be in New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland. Spreading 50 miles a year, the blight worked its way across the east, killing virtually every chestnut tree in its path.

By the time it reached Pennsylvania, quarantine lines were carved. Chemical control options were explored in vain. The blight swept through Pennsylvania, hopping quarantine lines, and by 1950, even the remote forests in southern Illinois were decimated.

A decimated Georgia forest of chestnut trees

While some people were trying to stop the blight, others were making it worse. Lumber men scrambled to cut down the remaining trees for their wood before they were infected and began to rot. Farmers were implored to chop down trees with any signs of blight. “Woodman, burn that tree; spare not a single bough,” cried a Pennsylvania newspaper. In an attempt to stop the spread, people may have killed off trees that were immune to the mysterious disease. Trees that could have recovered the species.

The American Chestnut tree was virtually extinct just 50 years after it was so incredibly important to wildlife, the economy, and diets. Millions of acres of land that had once been shaded by the lofty boughs now stood shadowed only by leafless, dead remnants.

Howard Miller, interviewed in 1996 as part of an oral history of West Virginia for the American Folklife Center.

The problem, it was found, was a fungus imported from Asia that attached to animal fur and bird feathers. It may have even originated with trees imported from China to the Bronx Zoo. No quarantine was going to stop birds from perching in trees across the country.

The fungus does not kill the roots of the tree, but it doesn’t allow them to attain an appreciable height before reinfecting the trunks and killing them back to the ground. So the tree still existed, but could grow to little more than a shrub that could not to bear fruit, so the species could not reproduce. The only mature chestnut trees remaining were in scattered isolated groves planted in the far west by early settlers, well beyond the range of the blight, and a few groves in the east kept alive by applying a virus that killed the fungus.


Ever since the American Chestnuts all-but disappeared, there have been efforts to find a cure for the fungus and to bring them back. One method involves breeding American chestnuts with Chinese chestnut trees, which are resistant to the fungus, and then back-breeding the hybrids with pure American trees. Some scientists have began sequencing the DNA of the American chestnut and the fungus that causes the blight.

On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked, as four commercial airliners were hijacked in an attempt to strike targets on the ground. Nearly 3,000 people tragically lost their lives. One of those planes missed its planned target, the U.S. Capitol building, because of the actions of the 40 passengers and crew who bravely thwarted the hijackers plans, after getting word of the fate of the other planes.

The plane crashed into a field in southern pennsylvania, scarring a strip-mined land tract instead of a populated building. On the 10-year anniversary of the crash, an effigy was dedicated to those brave people who lost their lives –  Flight 93 National Memorial.

For several years following the memorial’s dedication, students, scientists, local community members, and family members of those who died braved the cold on those hallowed grounds, with buckets and mud and work gloves, to dig holes and plant trees — American Chestnut trees.

The volunteers worked with the American Chestnut Foundation – an organization dedicated to the return of the tree – to help re-create natural woodlands on the grounds where Flight 93 crashed. The seedlings, it’s hoped, will be the first in more than a century to withstand an invasive chestnut blight fungus. They are the latest batch using the “backcross” technique to hybridize American chestnuts with the blight-resistant Asian species, producing seedlings that are almost identical to the American variety — about 94 percent American chestnut, after generations of backcrossing and intercrossing with other hybrid offspring.  

The Foundation became involved with the Flight 93 project when they heard that the park was looking for trees that grow in thin soil. It seemed an ideal fit.

It’s an experiment. One that has a large chance of failing. And there’s no way to know if the trees will survive until they reach maturity. Meanwhile, scientests continue to breed more generations of American chestnuts in the hopes of sprouting a truly fungus-resistant strain. Each year more trees are planted at the Flight 93 Memorial. With a goal of 150,000 of various types by next year. Volunteers talk about bringing their grandchildren back some day to see the splendid forest they planted in the memory of American heroes.


The Flight 93 National Memorial visitor complex opened on September 10, 2015. It takes about 45 minutes to explore the exhibit space, Flight Path Overlook, and the bookstore. You can then drive about a mile to the Memorial Plaza, or take a walking trail.

The Memorial Plaza marks the edge of the crash site, which is the final resting place of the passengers and crew. It consists of various elements including the Wall of Names and is a self-guided experience. Interpretive panels provide an overview of the story and a cell phone/mobile tour provides for more in-depth exploration.

A massive 93-foot tall wind-chime type sculpture entitled the Tower of Voices is nearly complete, making sure those that perish will always be heard.

Parking is limited, and during peak visitation the lot may fill. Early morning is the best time to visit, and the Visitor Center is open 9:00 am-5:00 pm, weather permitting.


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Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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