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

Sunday, September 9, 2007

White pine

The people of New Hampshire and Maine think we fought the American Revolutionary War over pine trees. Not tea. Not taxation without representation. Pine trees. There is some merit to their opinion. The Pine Tree Riot of 1772 was one of the first acts of rebellion leading to the American Revolution.

Why would anyone riot over white pines, the suburban misfit tree that is always ready to drop a heavy limb, sticky with resin, every time the wind gusts? The trees had enormous monetary value in the 18th century. They were the prize trees of the New England forests.

Forest-grown white pines, unlike their suburban counterparts, have a tall, straight trunk that is largely free of branches until it reaches the canopy. They were the tallest trees in the eastern forests.(1) They were also perfect for making ships' masts: long, straight, light, and strong. England, largely deforested since the 16th century, was desperate for mast wood. The English began using white pine, an American native, almost as soon as that species was discovered.(2) The Crown claimed ownership of all white pines over 12 inches in diameter, including those on private property. Attempts at enforcement of that claim ran counter to a large and important colonial industry and led to the Pine Tree Riot in Weare, New Hampshire in 1772, a year before the Boston Tea Party.

Freed of the Crown's constraints after the Revolution, Americans could harvest white pines freely. By about 1900 the once vast stands of white pines had been levelled, the resource depleted. Ironically, reforestation efforts required importing seedling trees from Europe, which had grown its own white pines from American seeds.(3) The seedlings came with a stowaway, white pine blister rust, a serious pest. White pine blister rust remains an important threat to white pines today.

The most serious threat to white pines in Plainfield's suburban landscape is the wind. White pines are quite susceptible to storm damage and drop limbs in all seasons. Many of Plainfield's white pines are battle-scarred. The Cushing Road pine pictured above has a raggedly torn limb remnant that appears to be about 18 inches in diameter. How to cope with this breakage problem if you are blessed with the presence of a large white pine on your property?(4) You don't have to cut the tree down. The longest branches can be tipped back by an arborist every two to three years. The shortened limbs absorb less wind energy and are much less likely to break. If this sort of pruning is skillfully done, the tree looks quite natural.

(1) A white pine on the site of Dartmouth College was reported to be 240 feet tall. Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees, Houghton Mifflin 2007, p. 28.

(2) Before they had white pine, the English had had to piece masts together out of Scotch pine. White pine masts could be "single stick" masts. The first English lumber mill in America was built in Maine in 1623. White pine had many uses beyond shipbuilding, and white pine lumbering developed into a large and very profitable industry in New England. White pine lumber paid for sugar, rum, and slaves. For more details see Sam Cox, White Pine Blister Rust, The Story of White Pine, American Revolution, Lumberjacks, and Grizzly Bears,

(3) Sam Cox, cited above.

(4) A clue to distinguishing white pines from other pines likely to be found in this area is the fact that white pine needles are bundled in groups of five.

Copyright Gregory Palermo