Epilogue - Discovery
John Fleming was minding his own business that particular morning. As the owner of J. R. Fleming Forestry LLC, he’s a forest consultant that helps landowners manage their timber. That includes tree species inventories, determining stocking rates, setting up timber sales and establishing management objectives to meet the needs of the landowner’s interests and tax burden.
This particular day, he was cruising a wood lot out in the Missouri River hills near Morrison, getting an idea of the property’s boundaries because he had organized a timber sale for a landowner and wanted to make sure the property lines were well-marked.
That’s when something on the ground caught his eye under the shady tree canopy. He squinted, trying to focus on the objects, because there were more than one.
“I noticed burs on the ground and I knew there were only a couple things that have a fruit that looks like that,” he said.
A heritage tree
It was the perfect tree, if there ever could be one. The American chestnut grew fast, tall and straight, the grain strong and linear—perfect for woodworking to build furniture, homes and fences. It was rot resistant, and the nuts this tree produced! “Turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with nuts, rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted,” according to the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) website.
ACF says more than a century ago, nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees were growing in the eastern U.S. The range of the tree follows a diagonal mass from from northern Miss., up to the New England states.
As a major component in eastern forests, it is “a late-flowering, reliable, and productive tree, unaffected by seasonal frosts and it was the single most important food source for a wide variety of wildlife, from bears to birds.”
The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree they say. It was, until it was wiped out in the eastern deciduous forest within 40 years by an interloper— Cryphonectria parasitica—an introduced fungal pest.
But it is not exactly extinct—only “functionally extinct.” That’s because the blight fungus doesn’t kill the root system of the tree. In its normal range, it sprouts from tree stumps and enjoys some years of growth before it dies back. In other words, it exists as a tall shrub, as opposed to the tall, majestic tree it once was.
John says that’s what puzzled him, when he first saw the one-and-one-half inch chestnut burs on the ground, those thorny-looking capsules that contain the seeds inside. He was looking for a tall chestnut shrub. Eventually, he looked up at the leaf canopy above him and realized what he was seeing.
“From a distance, the tree’s bark actually looked like a red oak,” he said.
This particular tree was on a west-facing slope three-quarters of the way up the ridge, which isn’t exactly the best soil or slope aspect for black walnuts he had seen in the area near the chestnut tree.
With this particular tree out of its normal range, growing on a site that isn’t ideal for the species, how did it wind up in its current location?
“My guess is that German immigrants brought the tree with them [when they settled the area],” said John. “It was an important food source.”
He said the black walnuts in the area could have been planted as well, around a homesite.
The forester thinks this chestnut is probably an off-spring of the [original] tree that was planted, putting this tree’s current age around 80 to 120 years-old.
If this tree has survived this long without contracting the blight, does it have chestnut blight resistance?
John’s best guess is the tree is too isolated from another chestnut tree stand infected with the blight to have contracted the disease.
“I do plan to have it tested for resistance to the fungus,” he says. “There is still a question as to whether it is a true American Chestnut or an American chestnut - Ozark chinkapin (Castanea ozarkensis) cross.”
The Ozark chinkapin is a rare southern Mo. tree in the Chestnut Family and has more genetic diversity than the American chestnut, therefore seems to be more resistant to the blight. Originally thought extinct, around 45 Ozark chinkapin trees have been “discovered” since the early 2000s.
John sent twig, leaf and bur samples to the ACF and he’s expecting a report on their findings this month. For further study, the group could do a DNA analysis using spring-budding leaflet samples. He remains excited about the find, saying it took awhile for the thought to sink in—that he actually found a chestnut out of its normal range and considers it a hallmark of his forestry practice.
“If there’s one [chestnut tree] out there, there may be others,” said John. He wonders about the viability of the nuts, because he hasn’t seen other chestnuts that would cross pollinate to bear live fruit. Chestnuts are considered self-sterile, so at least two trees are needed for pollination.
If someone thinks they may have found an American chestnut on their property, John says they can reach him through his website JrFlemingForestry.com. He also lives in Hermann and currently serves on the City’s Tree Commission. Or they can contact Missouri Department of Conservation Resource Forester Aaron Holsapple at the USDA office in Linn 573-897-3797.