“Under a spreading chestnut-tree

The village smithy stands

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.”

It’s no coincidence that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow started his poem “The Village Blacksmith” with the mention of a chestnut tree. Before 1840 when the poem was first published, and until the early 1900’s when a devastating (Asian) chestnut blight hit, the American chestnut tree was the dominant tree occupying 20 to 70 percent of forests in this nation from Maine down to Florida.

The impact of the importance and prominence of the American chestnut tree cannot be overstated. As a valuable shade tree it had no equal. As a source of food for humans and wildlife it was unparalleled.

John Forti’s recent book “The Heirloom Gardener” is an entertaining and informative compendium of gardening facts and folklore. Lynette Walther

As John Forti writes in his new book, “The Heirloom Gardener,” (from Timber Press), “Our native American chestnut (Castanea dentata) grew to be an enormous and stately tree in the forest canopy. It provided an exceptionally hard wood for barns, log cabins, house sills, fences, furniture, railroad ties and telephone poles.

“The nuts were a significant part of the diet for turkey, deer, and other woodland wildlife. Unlike acorns, which require special preparation to make them edible for humans, the American chestnut was naturally sweet and the only chestnut in the world that could be eaten without being roasted first. For this reason, they figured large in the diets of Native Americans and generations of immigrants alike, as free foraged protein.”

Forti tells that farmers would herd hogs and cattle to chestnut forests to sweeten and fatten them up. Harvest festivals were planned around the ripening of the nuts. “Turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major-cities to be sold fresh or roasted,” Forti writes.

But in 1904 a deadly chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) was accidentally introduced — apparently with imported nursery stock, Forti says. He adds that before the blight hit, “It was estimated that there were four billion chestnut trees which produced 20 million pounds of nuts annually.”

By 1940 nearly all American chestnut trees had succumbed to what became known as the chestnut blight, and our forests and towns were irrevocably changed. However, there were a few trees in remote areas — both in the far north and deep south — that survived and survive to this day. It is estimated that there are some 430 million wild American chestnuts still growing in their native range.

It is those surviving trees that have been the basis of an attempt to resurrect a blight-resistant American chestnut. The American Chestnut Foundation (acf.org) has worked for decades through selective breeding to that end. There are tree nurseries in many locations that offer some of those nearly blight-resistant trees for sale.

Indeed, anyone can purchase and grow American chestnut trees. American chestnut trees can be grown here as they once did. To have tree-production requires two trees, and it should be noted that at maturity, American chestnut trees can be 40 feet high with a similar spread. So if you do plan to grow them, provide plenty of room.

The nuts of the American chestnut tree are encased in a prickly case. Lynette Walther

The trees bloom in mid-summer with very attractive masses of white flowers that some describe as smelling of “dirty socks.” Expect nuts in late fall. Be prepared to protect your crop from marauding squirrels, just one of the many critters which relish the sweet nuts.

Given the desirability of American chestnuts as ornamental and shade trees and for food production, it was expected that genetic modification would be considered. And indeed, it has been conducted at the University of New York SUNY with actual trees produced and grown under extremely tight conditions for many obvious reasons.

“In 1990, SUNY ESF tree geneticists William Powell and Charles Maynard (now retired) decided to try to create resistant chestnuts with the then-new technology of genetic engineering. Eventually, they inserted into the tree’s genome a wheat gene that codes for an enzyme called oxalate oxidase, or OxO,” states an internet source.

However, that approach has not been without criticism and controversy, as most genetically-modified projects have experienced. The genetic engineering work on the American chestnut prompted alarm bells and the ACF issued warnings and raised serious objections.

“GE trees pose risks of contaminating forests, damaging ecosystems and harming communities. The risks of release genetically engineered trees are unknown…” the ACF posted. A number of scientific articles on the topic were published with the pros and cons of the issue considered in detail. Many of those articles can be found online for further study.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing, a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm, the professional organization for garden writers. Her gardens are in Camden.