The American Chestnut was the predominant tree species in the eastern forests prior to the early 1900’s. It was a primary source of lumber, as well as the primary food source tree for White-tailed Deer, Black Bears, Wild Turkeys, and Red and Gray Squirrels. The chestnut forest could produce 2,000 pounds of mast or more per acre. Chestnuts were the favored food in the fall for game, because the sweet tasting nuts were high in protein and carbohydrates and had no bitter tasting tannins like acorns.
In the early 1900’s, the importation of Chinese and Japanese Chestnut trees to North America introduced chestnut blight, a fungus to which American Chestnut trees were nonresistant. It is estimated that between three and four billion American Chestnut trees were destroyed in the first half of the 20th century. Today saplings can be found, but full-size American Chestnuts within their historical range are few and far between.
If you come across a tree that has American Beech-like leaves (both Chinese and American Chestnut are members of the Beech family), and bears fruit covered with spines, it could very well be a Chinese Chestnut. While its leaves and fruit are very similar to those of the American Chestnut, Chinese Chestnut is blight resistant. Its shrubby growth, however, is not desirable, so researchers have developed a hybrid chestnut that has the blight resistance of the Chinese Chestnut with all of its other traits (including height and girth) coming from the American Chestnut. (15/16ths American and 1/16th Chinese). Humans, as well as deer, turkeys, bears and squirrels, will reap the benefit of this research.
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