Can We Engineer an American Chestnut Revival?
Geege Schuman stashed this in Botany
What a gastronomical loss!
Chances are good that none of us has ever tasted an American chestnut. The chestnuts found in supermarkets today are European sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), often nicknamed “Spanish chestnuts,” though most actually come from Italy.
The Romans are generally credited with cultivating C. sativa and distributing it across Europe. (A reputedly Roman-planted tree—known as the “chestnut of a hundred horses” because of its gargantuan girth—survived in Sicily until 1850.) Chestnuts were a common treat in Shakespeare’s England: the chestnut-deprived three witches in Macbeth whipped up a storm at sea because a sailor’s wife had rudely refused to share hers.
On the other side of the Channel, elaborately candied chestnuts or marrons glacés were favorites of Louis XIV, who had a sweet tooth. In the 18th century, formal dinners were often rounded off with chestnuts, served to diners in tureen-shaped porcelain chestnut baskets, with pierced lids to allow for escaping steam.
By all accounts, however, the American chestnuts were bigger, sweeter, richer, and altogether more delectable than these European cousins—which means that the Francophilic Thomas Jefferson, who insisted on importing “French chesnuts” to Monticello, was missing out on a good thing. Dozens of early American recipes incorporated chestnuts in everything from turkey stuffing to soup, bread, porridge, polenta, and pie.
Such large and luscious chestnuts are no longer around today. Their nemesis was chestnut blight, a disease caused by a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, that seems to have reached North America in company with a batch of fungus-resistant Japanese chestnut trees imported to New York in 1876. Once here, C. parasitica moved fast—for a fungus. By 1904, New York’s chestnut trees were dying; by 1907, trees were kicking the bucket in New Jersey. By the 1920s, blight was devastating the chestnuts of Pennsylvania and Maryland; a decade later, it had reached Ohio and North Carolina. By the 1940s, over four billion American chestnut trees were dead and the species had been declared all but extinct.
I have never heard of the chestnut blight. Done in by a single fungus!
We've been hearing for years that biotech might bring the American chestnut back: