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.
This first sextain of this poem is as familiar as perhaps any verse in English. When Longfellow penned it he focused on the village blacksmith. Fair enough, since the poem is eponymously titled, "The Village Blacksmith".
Let's take a look at the tree.
As impressive as the village smithy was, note that he is standing under the spreading chestnut-tree. So did almost everything else. These behemoths could reach 100 feet (30.5 m) tall. YET, this once majestic tree was laid low and driven to extinction, along with billions of its kind, in only 50 years, by a fungus that was accidentally brought to the United states from Asia around 1900. It was likely brought here through the import of the American chestnut's relatively diminutive cousins, the Chinese and Japanese chestnuts. These Asian strains were widely imported around the turn of the century and are pretty much immune to the chestnut blight.
Aside from being an excellent shade tree for smithies, the American Chestnut was an amazing food source for wildlife in the Eastern deciduous forests. Being relatively unaffected by seasonal frosts meant huge crops of chestnuts each year. It is hard to imagine the impact the sudden removal of this food source had on forest ecology. By some accounts, the chestnut trees were so dominant and ubiquitous, that a squirrel could travel from branch to branch, entirely on chestnut trees, from the Mississippi river to the Atlantic ocean. Anecdotal, yes, but it makes a point.
Efforts to combat the chestnut blight continue and researchers pursue them in diverse ways. Although the forests are decimated, individual trees show varying degrees of resistance to the blight, so some of the work focuses on selecting and improving strains that already exhibit some immunity. The disease enters through a scrape or wound and works its way upward so, amazingly, some chestnut trees even now continue to sprout from the roots. One of the most promising approaches involves crossing Chinese chestnut with surviving American chestnut stock. The Dunstan chestnut is one such cross and is linked below. Perhaps the most controversial approach consists of genetically altering the tree's genome to increase resistance to attack from the fungus.
Although there may be hope that science will be able to find a way to "bring back" the iconic American chestnut tree, one must wonder if it will ever again reach anything close to the dominance it had up until the 20th century.
Thanks to Stuart for reminding me about the Chinese/American hybrid chestnuts!