The return of the American chestnut tree in Fluvanna

By Page H. Gifford

Growing up we heard about the chestnut tree in literature, heard it in Christmas songs, and some may remember, in places like New York City, street vendors selling roasted chestnuts. It was common to see chestnut trees in the wild and it was part of American life. They survived for 40 million years and died out within 40 years. In north-eastern America, there were three billion trees and 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were chestnut but the number of surviving trees 24” in diameter is now fewer than 100.

“The chestnut trees, once a dominant tree of the Eastern deciduous forest, had been decimated by a blight in the early 1900s. Their nuts were a valuable source of food for wildlife and humans, while the wood was highly prized with its rot-resistant quality as well as strength. It was used for railroad ties, telegraph poles, etc.,” said Walter Hussey, a master naturalist. “The American Chestnut Foundation  (ACF) and the Virginia Department of Forestry (VADOF) are working to restore chestnut to our forests, but it takes time to breed a variety resistant to the blight due to the long life cycle of a tree.”

A restoration project is underway to bring back the American chestnut tree to Pleasant Grove. There are many similar projects at Pleasant Grove supporting wildlife and plant life at the park including the successful pollinator garden. The project was the idea of the late Doug Frazier who lived in the county. According to Hussey, Frazier had visited one of the VADOF research nurseries working with the Virginia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, to crossbreed American Chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts that are resistant to the blight. Hussey said the  ideal mix is 1/16th Chinese and 15/16th American.

“He arranged, with the lead Chestnut VADOF researcher, to obtain some nuts and introduced us. Doug knew that I had already coordinated the planting of over  one thousand trees at Pleasant Grove as part of establishing the native wildlife meadows,” he said. “The key point behind the Chestnut Restoration Demonstration Plot at Pleasant Grove Park was that the nurseries, while open to the public, did not do much to educate the public and also were just isolated oasis devoted to research.”

He said the next step in the chestnut restoration was to start moving out into the public and to diversify the plantings beyond the nurseries.

“The Pleasant Grove Park Chestnut Restoration Demonstration Plot provides an initial activity moving us in that direction, an effort we expect to be copied by other public areas and parks throughout Virginia.”

One of the key questions for some is what kind of nutrients do chestnuts provide and how do you cook and eat them. A large, sweet, soft nut, tasting like a sweet potato, roasted chestnuts are the most common food and chestnut stuffing had been a feature at the Thanksgiving table decades ago. But they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, including fresh, pureed, jarred or canned, and even ground into flour. They are a good source of antioxidants and are high in fiber, low in fat, and reduce heart disease. They are generally available in the fall.

Fluvanna County Parks and Recreation had been involved in determining the site. The seeds and seedlings were provided by the VADOF. The plantings were by volunteers from the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards, Rivanna Master Naturalists, and the Fluvanna Master Gardeners.

The Chestnut Restoration Demonstration Plot is just one of the many efforts undertaken by Fluvanna County resident volunteers under our project, Pleasant Grove Park: A Natural Experience.” These are opportunities for the public to learn about nature and it is a great educational experience for families to take advantage of as well.

Other nature experiences they have created at Pleasant Grove include self-guided nature hikes, a tree identification arboretum trail, a Nature Room with numerous nature artifacts, the native wildlife meadows, butterfly garden, birding guides, and trail/ habitat maps, bluebird nesting box trail, and more. Hussey adds that these nature experiences are not only available anytime the public visits Pleasant Grove Park but are included in their education programs, including the monthly guided hikes, the annual Earth Day, 1st and 2nd grade field trips, summer library programs, Fluvanna County Fair and other events conducted by their volunteers.

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