Huge chestnut trees – at maturity, 100 feet tall with a 100-foot-wide branch spread – once dominated forests throughout the eastern United States. Their abundant fruit provided high quality nutrition for dozens of species of birds and mammals, including human beings. Many struggling pioneer families relied upon chestnuts to avoid starvation. Native Americans and European settlers made flour and soap from the fruit, and other tree parts were used for medicine.
Chestnuts also provided excellent food for livestock. In fact, Hog Rock Nature Trail in Catoctin Mountain Park recalls the practice of driving hogs up into the mountains to fatten them up on chestnuts. Chestnuts were so plentiful that they were sold as a cash crop to other farmers seeking feed for their livestock.
The chestnut lumber industry was the economic engine of many rural communities. Besides being plentiful and an excellent source of heating fuel, the wood was prized for its straight grain, lightweight, and rot resistance. It was ideal for diverse uses, from barns and fences to fine furniture and musical instruments.
Chestnut trees were so valued for so many purposes that few went untouched. With the exception of scattered stands in remote areas, most of the giant trees were harvested. Nevertheless, the chestnut retained its dominance because it sprouted quickly from stumps and grew faster than other trees. In fact, chestnut trees were actually increasing in number and dominance.
Until the blight, that is. In the early 20th century, imported Asian chestnut trees brought to U.S. forests a fungus to which native chestnuts had little resistance. The blight spread quickly and, within a few decades, our most important tree was wiped out. Many experts consider this the largest botanical disaster in history.
But many others were unwilling to concede defeat. The American Chestnut Foundation, created in 1983, was dedicated to developing a blight-resistant American chestnut species. Now, after decades of work, the plant biologists are nearing success, and ThorpeWood is playing a small role in the effort.
In its own Chestnut Orchard, ThorpeWood hopes to produce viable, blight-resistant offspring that have the unique genetic make-up of the chestnut trees that once grew in the Catoctins. Ultimately these trees may be planted in the surrounding forest, repopulating our mountains with the wonderful historic and economically important tree. Data collection, controlled pollination, and other activities are managed by students from Hood College in Frederick, MD.
In addition to its botanical significance, the Chestnut Orchard offers numerous educational opportunities for local students and teachers. Students can learn about the restoration effort, assist with orchard maintenance, help assess the condition of the trees, help collect data, and learn the importance of biological diversity through hands-on activities.