Sunday, September 23, 2007


Has even one American in 50 seen an American chestnut? We know the tree as wood, not as a tree. American chestnuts supplied countless Plainfield and other American houses of the early twentieth century with beautifully grained lumber for decorative woodwork. The trees are a distant memory. They were the most common tree in eastern American forests until they were largely wiped out by chestnut blight.

When I thought I saw an American chestnut at 1479 West Fourth Street last weekend, I brought my car to a screeching halt and leaped out to get a closer look. Wrong! A Chinese chestnut, the American chestnut's closest mimic. Any species of true chestnut is a rare bird around here. The West Fourth Street Chinese chestnut is the only chestnut I've seen in Plainfield. It's a beautiful tree, and it's quite easy to spot in this season because of its numerous large nuts and its bright green sawtoothed leaves.

Chinese chestnuts are apparently the culprits that introduced chestnut blight when they were imported into this country. The Chinese species, Castanea mollissima, is little bothered by the fungal blight that is so devastating to the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

The American Chestnut Foundation is trying to breed the disease-resistance of Chinese chestnuts into the American species to bring back American chestnuts from the brink of extinction. Their breeding program has hybridized the two species to select for blight resistance in the offspring. Resistant progeny are being "backcrossed" with American chestnuts over several generations to progressively reduce the Chinese genetic element. The goal is an American chestnut that has Chinese genes for blight resistance. Plainfield attorney Victor King, an American Chestnut Foundation member, has three of the hybrid chestnuts growing on his property in New Hampshire and tells me that they are doing well.

If you want to see an American chestnut, you probably have to leave town. Stump sprouts, seedlings, and saplings are mostly what is left of American chestnuts. I went to see some in Monmouth County's Hartshorne Woods yesterday. Traipsing around in the rain, I found several young trees. American chestnuts have large, sawtoothed leaves that are thin and papery. Chinese chestnut leaves are thick and waxy. American chestnuts have hairless red-brown twigs with sharp buds that project out from the stem at a 45 degree angle. Chinese chestnut twigs are hairy and tan to pea-green. Their buds are rounded and hug the twig.(1)

The trees with sawtoothed leaves on East Second Street between Park and Watchung Avenues are not chestnuts. The leaves are chestnut-like, but the trees are oaks.

At a quick glance there is very little about these trees to make you think oak. Except acorns! In this season the trees have littered the ground with large numbers of big, heavily fringed acorns. Sawtooth oaks provide the most extreme example of oak leaves with bristle tips, one of the defining features of the red oak group. But that subject is for another time.

Note sawtooth oak's extravagantly fringed acorn caps. Click on the photograph to enlarge.

(1) The American Chestnut Foundation's excellent pictorial guide to speciating chestnuts:

Copyright Gregory Palermo


Cory Storch said...

What a great story! Thanks. Have you read the Barbara Kingsolver book Prodigal Summer in which she writes about hybrid chestnuts.

And where do chestnuts roasting on NYC streets come from?

Cory Storch

Robin Gates said...

Hello Dr. Palermo,

I just wanted to let you know that you don't have to leave Plainfield to see a native American Chestnut. There is one located on the front lawn of the Coriell Mansion's original carriage house at 946 Madison Avenue. It was planted in 1992 by Bill Santoriello when he owned the house. It is not a hybridized variety. It was a native seedling that he planted from the American Chestnut Foundation in Michigan and it's still healthy.

Best regards,

Robin Gates