Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Extinct Trees and the Apple Detective

My recent post about the Russian leather rescued from a two hundred year old shipwreck reminded me of a story I heard many years back about a couple of divers who raise American Chestnut tree trunks from the bottom of the Mississippi River. Maybe, because I grew up in extreme south Texas (practically Mexico), far removed from the natural habitat for this tree, I was completely unaware of the near extinction of the American Chestnut. This native tree made up about 20 percent of our eastern forests. Chestnuts were so plentiful that they were used by farmers to fatten their cattle. In 1904 the disease was first noticed affecting trees at the Bronx Zoo. It's believed that the disease hitched a ride to the United States on an imported asian Chestnut tree. By 1950 the American Chestnut population was practically extinct. I've read that strands of chestnut trees in Canada, and a couple of western states were spared. I wasn't able to find the story about the divers. I did find several businesses that scour the eastern countryside looking for old barns and other buildings built from this wood. The wood is reclaimed and sold. I'm sure some of you guys reading this are from the east and have seen the old stumps and heard family members talk about these trees and the blight that killed them. Not having traveled out east, I've never seen American Chestnut wood or anything made from it. Several organizations are trying to cross polinate the blight resistant Chinese Chestnut trees with our native trees but it doesn't sound very promising.

Dead chestnut trees along the Blueridge Parkway

The photo below is from a website belonging to the Volunteer State Community College. It's got some good photos of several living trees discovered in Tennessee.

Since I'm on the subject of bringing things back from the brink of extinction, I remembered hearing a story on NPR about the Apple Detective, Carlos Manning. He travels around the country trying to find varieties of heirloom apples thought to be extinct. Extinct may not be the best word to use in this case, lost or forgotten may be more fitting. When I searched NPR, I found a synopsis of the story but there was no recording available. I guess the story was too old, it originally aired in 1998. I've never had an heirloom apple. From what I've read they're usually shaped funny, are strangely colored, and smaller than modern apples. They're also supposed to have remarkably different tastes from variety to variety. Anyway, here's a link to an old L.A. Times story on Mr. Manning. There's also this interesting story by a lady whose family owns an orchard that has a variety of apples that were thought to be extinct.

Kind of along the same lines there is a place in Brenham, Texas called the Antique Rose Emporium. The owner gathers clippings from antique rose bushes usually found in abandoned homesteads around Texas. I believe I heard about this guy on the Texas Country Reporter some years ago.


  1. There are folks working hard to preserve American chestnut - check out www.acf.org - the American Chestnut Foundation. I have a friend who is cross-breeding American and Chinese chestnuts. ACF has now developed a tree that is 15/16 American and 1/16 Chinese. The tree has the characteristics of the American, but the blight resistance of the Chinese.

    I haven't seen a live native chestnut for 20 years.

    While there is some hope for the American chestnut, there are many other eastern trees facing challenges from both insect and disease, like emerald ash borer killing all species of ash, Asian longhorn beetle killing many sugar maples, oak wilt and northern red oak, butternut canker, gypsy moth and virtually most species of trees (except ash, which is ironic) and the list goes on. International trade over the last 150 years has introduced these insects and diseases. There are many people and organizations out there working to limit the damages these pests cause, but it is a daunting challenge.

  2. Thanks for the info Big Oak. I hope they do come up with a successful solution to the chestnut problem. I wonder when the Christmas song with the line, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" was written?

  3. If you have read my post you know that I am a tree hugger. I live under a tree and among the trees and the major reason that I have not left is the trees.
    When a tree hurts I hurt.
    I have never seen a chestnut tree.
    We are trying to start some trees here knowing that when we are gone they will be bulldozed and a house trailer will be parked there instead.
    My bride (SWMBO) planted a pear tree on the spot where one was cut down by the former owner. He cut it down to keep the neighbor kids from climbing it. Does that make sense? He is dying of cancer and I'm not surprised.

  4. You can buy chestnuts seasonally at Tom Thumb. They are quite good and are easy to roast in the oven. No word on what variety they might be.