If you could go back in time and look at the forests in the region when Europeans made contact with the Native Americans you would find the American Chestnut tree, castanea dentata, making up about 30% of the forest.
The trees grew tall and straight for building materials and the nuts were a nutritious food source for people and livestock. Because the wood resisted rot, fence posts, log cabins, and other structures were built using the food. People collected the nuts to eat and also pastured livestock with trees, so the animals could forage on the nuts.
The trees grew to over 10-feet in diameter. Google “American Chestnut tree historic photo” and look at the size of some of those trees.
In the early 1800s ink disease started to affect the tree in its southern U.S. range. Then, at the turn of the century, a blight began killing off trees throughout the entire eastern range.
Today, you’ll find in the forest American Chestnut trees that will grow for a couple of years before the blight takes its toll. You’ll also find landowners who have been working with researchers and the American Chestnut Foundation to develop a tree that is mostly American Chestnut, but has enough Chinese Chestnut DNA to resist the blight.
Seedpods: Spreading Dogbane & Indian Hemp On your winter rambles – especially near wet or disturbed old fields or cindery ground near limestone outcrops – look for the unusual seedpods of these plants.
They look like wishbones hanging down against the snow. We have two native species in our area identifiable in summer by different colored blooms and both attracting bees, moths, and butterflies. They are members of the APOCYNACEAE or Dogbane Family, perennials found throughout North America.
The common name “dogbane” because the white milky sap is toxic to dogs, livestock, us; although it was used as a heart medicine in times past. The common name “Indian Hemp” because its tough fibers were used to make nets and cordage. Surprise! Both names have been used for both plants! See why I like to use scientific names for plants?
Anyway, the one mostly called Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)is taller, up to four feet, and has longer pods, five to eight inches long. The one mostly called Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is shorter at about two feet with two inch long pods. And the scientific names are the reason why people use common names! Right?
Just look for the pods and think about summer… when these plants’ flowers each put out a pair of long, tapered pods that release fluffy parachutes of seeds into the warm, sunny sky.
American Chestnut Tree The American chestnut tree and my recent post, the American beech tree, are both members of the same family, FAGACEAE, or Beech Family. Our native chestnut, Castanea dentata, was a very large tree, up to 100 feet tall with a massive trunk and a broad crown. These trees provided strong, straight-grained wood for building and lots of sweet, meaty chestnuts for humans and wildlife to enjoy.
Sadly, an airborne Asian bark fungus was accidently imported in 1904 and spread so rapidly in forty years, it wiped out this once abundant species which had made up a quarter of the Eastern Hardwood forests from Maine to Mississippi. Some say as many as four billion trees were infected, girdled, and killed. Fortunately, their underground roots can survive and put up stump sprouts that may grow long enough to reproduce before succumbing to the blight.
The American Chestnut Foundation is one of many organizations dedicated to creating a blight-resistant American chestnut that can be reintroduced to our forests. Until then, we have stump sprouts which can grow up to thirty feet tall and be identified during the winter because they retain their leaves, like American beech. On your walks or skiing, look back through the woods for brown leaves, five to eight inches long with hooked teeth at the end of each parallel vein and check to see if the tree they are on is part of a group of trunks, coming up from an old tree stump.