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American Chestnut Trees Grew Taller in People's Memories

The American Chestnut tree has mythic stature in tree lore. Today the old giants of people's memories are long gone from the landscape, wiped out by an Asian blight a hundred years ago. And even though they still loom large in the history and culture of Appalachia, new research suggests, their mythic proportions are likely, just that.   

This is a story about a species of tree that seemed to grow taller in the decades after it nearly went extinct. In this part of the world, the American Chestnut is remembered, actually, revered, as a towering giant, central to the economy for its nuts, and resistance to rot.

But did it really grow as big and tall as people think, well over a hundred feet? That question occurred to Roanoke College Biologist Rachel Collins while she was researching American Chestnut on the Internet.

"And I came across a description of one in Francis Cove, North Carolina, said to have a 17 foot diameter."

With her knowledge of the trees that grow around here and how tall they get, something about that number didn't make sense to her.

"If you were to lay out a tape in your living room of how big 17 feet is it would really be a monstrous tree in the east."

Collins contacted Virginia Tech Forestry Professor Carolyn Copenheaver, who said, 'Right,' pointing out that trees around here don't typically get that big, not now, and likely not back then.

Ultimately their discussions raised the question, says Copenheaver, “Are we remembering American Chestnut as a larger tree than it actually was?" 

Since there’s no way to measure missing trees, Collins, Copenheaver and their colleagues, scoured written accounts of American chestnuts made hundreds of years ago.

"We were working with a lot of historical documents and a lot of the folks in the 1800's were recording tree sizes as circumference rather than the diameter. So, we kind of had to go back to our high school geometry class and think about how you calculate circumference from diameter; Circumference equals 3.14 or Pi times the diameter of the tree." 

By the 20th century, new tools made it easy to convert circumference into diameter. But once the mention of the alleged 17 foot diameter got into the record, it got cited and repeated again and again.

Rachel Collins says, "It gives you the impression that American Chestnut trees were everywhere, and they were 120 feet tall. That would be 40 feet taller than our forests are today."

Copenhaver points out that the American Chestnut is what's known as a charismatic species. People felt a strong connection to it and that may have helped elevate it in people's minds.

"I think the loss of this species really brought out a lot of emotions for people. They actually were able to see this [blight take hold] on the landscape. There were areas where you would be able to see a lot of standing dead trees. The blight moved pretty quickly. Some estimates are that it spread 19 miles a year."

And that means people could have watched the entire species disappear within their lifetimes.

"And I don’t think we have a whole lot of other things that are like that, where you can really see the impact in the forest."

It may be why people are pitching in with the American Chestnut Foundation to resurrect the beloved tree.  Armies of volunteers are taking part in projects to back-cross remaining specimen with their blight-resistant Chinese cousins for a hybrid that looks and pretty much is, exactly like the natives.  

Some tree experts still hold to the idea that the trees were as towering and huge as has long been thought. They agree to disagree with the research in Collins and Copenheaver’s paper. Since none of the new crop has reached maturity yet, it's impossible to know for sure how big and tall they'll grow.  

Rachel Collins lauds the work the foundation is doing. She hopes to plant some on her own property. But she thinks it's important to have realistic expectations about these trees. 

"Where the problem fall is, if we have this expectation that this restoration work is going to lead to American Chestnut being this huge tree on our landscape, people are going to think that the restoration work didn't work, that it was a failure. So I thinks it's important for us to have a realistic understanding of what American Chestnut used to be in the Appalachians, and that is something worth saving."

Collins, Copenheaver and their co-authors, Mary Kester, Ethan Barker, and Kyrille Goldbeck DeBose, published their paper re-examining the American Chestnut Tree in The Journal of Forestry.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.