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Lessons from the American Chestnut

Classic Cornell Extension Manual on Nut Cultivation (Click for PDF download)

The New York Times has been putting out some great articles lately, including a recent one about the American Chestnut and one highlighting growing interest in Agroforestry practices, which combines gardening and farming with the cultivation of tree crops. The main benefits of trees in the landscape are the preservation of soil and water, the sequestering of carbon, and support of a greater diversity of wildlife. Once we plant and establish these trees, we can also enjoy the long term benefits of harvesting a nutritious crop each season with less work.

I recently finished an amazing book by Susan Freinkel called “American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree,” which not only tells the story of the mass spread of the blight, which wiped out 3 to 4 billion trees in the early decades of the 1900s, but also examines the human responses to large scale ecosystem disturbance, from efforts to stop the spread of the fungus to the scores of devoted Americans who have worked for decades to back-breed a cross of the American and Chinese chestnut to improve blight resistance, and effort led largely by the American Chestnut Foundation.

Dr. William Murrill, a mycologist from Cornell University, discovered the life cycle of the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica or the chestnut blight.

This story gives reason for pause as New Yorkers look ahead to several forest threats coming down the line, including the Emerald Ash Borer, which Cooperative Extension is actively educating the public about with some excellent EAB resources at the NY Invasive Species Clearinghouse. Efforts to monitor the spread of this and other potential problem pests, and efforts to slow the spread through firewood restrictions are important.

One lesson we can learn from the history of American Chestnut is that even the most intense pest invasions cannot be cause for panic. Around the 1920s hope had largely been lost on controlling the spread of the disease, and it was actually US Forest Service policy to encourage that ALL chestnuts be cut down, dead or alive. This had the effect of removing any possible trees that had natural blight resistance, which could have been used to speed up current efforts to reintroduce the tree to the forest.

This stresses the importance of continuing to manage local forests for overall health while keeping a keen eye on the movement of the Emerald Ash Borer.

Map of EAB discoveries & quarantine zones in NY


There are likely healthy and genetically superior ash trees that will demonstrate resistance to infestation. The EAB is in NewConsult your local extension office at the following resources for more information:

CCE ForestConnect Publication: Silviculture and Invasive Insects

CCE Factsheet: Private Woodland Management in Anticipation of Emerald Ash Borer (2007)

Forest Management with Emerald Ash Borer – 2006 Ohio State University Extension



  1. Greg says:

    Thanks for writing this post. I worry about the blight in Rochester NY all the time.

    Thank you

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