In the early 1900’s, it is estimated that every 1 in 4 trees in eastern woodland forests was an American Chestnut. It was a reliable food source for a variety of animals, an important cash crop for people of the region, and a staple of the lumber trade. The wood of the American chestnut is easily worked and highly rot-resistant. It played a major role in the ecosystem and the economy at the beginning of the last century.
In 1904, an orange-colored rust was reported on the Chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. It was determined that a fungus, originating from Asia, was causing the American Chestnut trees to sicken and die. By the 1920’s, the fungus had spread as far north as southern Ontario. By the 1940’s, it was estimated that over three and a half billion trees had succumbed to the disease.
The American Chestnut Foundation was established in 1989 in an attempt to bring back the American Chestnut. By crossing blight-resistant Chinese Chestnuts with American Chestnuts, TACF is hoping to breed an American Chestnut that is resistant to the fungus.
The Chestnut Orchard at Hashawha was established in April 2007. With the help of students from Francis Scott Key High School, 250 trees were planted. These seedlings were the product of a cross between surviving American Chestnut trees in Maryland and American/Chinese Chestnut hybrids. Over time, the fungus will be introduced to these trees to see if they are resistant to the blight. If they are, their offspring will be used to help reintroduce the American Chestnut.
Almost a decade later, a majority of the trees are growing strong and have begun to bear chestnuts!