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Can This Tree Be Saved? : The once-mighty American trees have nearly died out. There's a chance that the science of the '90s can save them.

December 17, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

Close your eyes and you can still see them: American chestnut trees, steeple-straight, towering 100 feet tall, as much as 10 feet in diameter. The redwood of the Appalachians.

They're gone now, almost all of them. Making up one-quarter to one-third of the hardwood forests on the East Coast at the turn of the century, adult American chestnut trees today are as scarce as a village smithy.

Once, the chestnut was the workhorse of American trees. Its lumber made everything from fine musical instruments to log cabins and sturdy insect-proof fences that would last 100 years. The railroads that spanned the continent were built on chestnut ties, and when telecommunications was just a dream, it was chestnut lumber that provided the choicest telephone poles.

The nuts, which were almost always abundant, represented not only a source of food but also an important cash crop through much of its range. Indeed, historians have suggested that one reason the Depression hit so hard in the mid-South was that it coincided with the disappearance of the chestnut tree.

For in 1904, the chestnut trees began to die. By 1909, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that most of the trees within a 30-mile radius of New York City were infected and that the blight had spread to at least eight other states. By 1920, trees in the Northeast were wiped out. By 1930, the trees were dying in Virginia. By 1940, the damage extended to Alabama. By 1950, the war was over and we'd lost.

The victor was the chestnut blight, Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus in which the spores are "extremely small, almost smoke-like in particulate size," according to one scientific journal.

Borne on the wind and carried on the feet of migrating birds, the spores would lodge in cracks in the trees' bark, then spread around the circumference, choking off the flow of water and nutrients.

From China and Japan, where the native trees are immune to it, the blight was probably imported into this country on the bark of trees. In one of a series of blight ironies, those Asian trees were probably imported to cross-breed with American trees to produce bigger nuts.

The blight was first described in 1904 by Herman W. Merkel, of the Bronx Zoological Park. He turned the investigation over to his colleague, William A. Murrill, who published the first papers on the subject in 1908. Alarmed by the plague, Murrill advocated cutting down all chestnut trees within half a mile of the infected area, isolating the fungus.

Nobody paid any attention. It wasn't until 1911 that there was a laboratory established to study the disease. On the other hand, given the rapidity with which the blight spread, Murrill's proposal probably would have been useless anyway.

Finally, in 1912, a scientific conference was called in Philadelphia (in Pennsylvania, the chestnut crop--nuts and lumber--was estimated to be worth $40 million) to examine ways of stopping the plague.

By then, the blight was taken seriously, and those assembled regarded its eradication with almost patriotic fervor. This was, after all, the start of the American century.

"Unless this disease be stopped . . . it is certain that within a few years very few living wild chestnut trees will be found in America," said Pennsylvania Gov. John Tener in his opening remarks. "It is, therefore, entirely in accord with the American spirit that we make every effort to destroy or check the advance of this blight.

"As Admiral Dewey, at about the outset of our war with Spain, was directed by President McKinley and the Cabinet to seek out the Spanish fleet and destroy it, so it might be said that the only direction given this commission was to find this dread chestnut bark disease and destroy it."

R.A. Pearson, the former New York commissioner of agriculture, was elected chairman and seconded Tener's sympathies.

"It has been suggested that we should do nothing to counteract the ravages of the chestnut tree disease, because we are not fully informed as to how to proceed," he said, in a rousing speech punctuated by applause. "That is un-American. If we had waited until the application of steam should be thoroughly understood, we would be still waiting for our great trains and steamboats, which are the marvel of the age."

Indeed, there were those who advocated doing nothing. Remember, these people were facing a biological holocaust of almost unprecedented ferocity. And although there were those who advocated action at any cost--destroying the forest to save the trees--there were also those who, whether out of fiscal conservatism or natural fatalism, said there was no cure.

Professor F.C. Stewart of the New York Agriculture Experimentation Station was one.

"It is better to attempt nothing," he said, "than to waste a large amount of public money on a method of control which there is every reason to believe cannot succeed."

And F.B. Jewett, described only as being of Susquehanna County, Pa., was almost poetic in his pessimism.

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