The Chestnut Was Dead: To Begin With

At various times in its history—especially in the mid-1800s with a downtown tree-planting initiative led by Mayor William Case—Cleveland thought of itself as the Forest City. That title may seem quaint in retrospect, for we know the gritty, booming industrial center that Cleveland was about to become. But today, with the view of a walk in the Metroparks or from a window seat on an arriving flight, Forest City seems perfectly appropriate.

Though the city has spilled far beyond Public Square and the Flats to become Greater Cleveland, the communities encompassed by that moniker often look as though their streets and houses were carefully squeezed into an existing forest of towering oaks and stately maples. Fairview Park is one such community and I went there on an overcast morning in September to meet a man to talk about trees.

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A retired chemist and continuing entrepreneur in his 70s, Joe Reardon resides on an enviably large corner lot in a neighborhood deeply shaded by a canopy of oaks and hickories.

Joe has been growing chestnut trees for years. He first became interested in them as a boy, during summers spent in Pennsylvania at his father’s childhood home.

“My cousins and my dad—we’d go hiking up in the mountains for blueberries,” Reardon says. “And I can remember so clearly all these big fallen trunks and dead trees and my dad explaining that those were the chestnuts, and the stories of how he and his brothers used to go up there with gunny sacks and come back with more chestnuts than they could carry. That really got me interested.”

We head over to a pair of trees, planted side by side, where Joe has us compare leaves from each tree. They were of similar size and shape, about seven inches long and tapered at both ends, their margins serrated with coarse, pointy teeth.

“Notice the leaves are dull and tend to be lighter on the one side,” he notes for one specimen, whereas the other’s “leaves are glossier, not as deeply indented.”

We’re comparing two species of chestnut. The glossy leaves belong to a Chinese chestnut; the other tree is American. Reaching down, Joe picks up several brown prickles—chestnut burrs. Botanically speaking, the burr is the inedible fruit that encloses one or more sweet very edible seeds. He hands them to me, one from each tree.

“Give the burrs a good, hard squeeze” he directs me.

Chinese chestnut burrs are painfully spiny. I’ve experienced them before foraging in my neighborhood. What has my attention in this moment is the bristly burr of the American chestnut. This is the first time I’ve ever seen one and I am savoring the momentous occasion with reverence.

As a board member of the Ohio chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), Joe takes his mission of promoting the chestnut seriously. Tour concluded, he gives me seedlings, smiling as he commands, presumably to our trees: “Go forth and produce!”

Ghost of Chestnut’s Past

In the past, one wouldn’t have had to travel far to see an American chestnut. In his 1796 survey of the future site of Public Square, Moses Cleaveland mentioned chestnuts first among trees he encountered there. Joe Reardon estimates that the native species made up about 15% of all trees in Northeast Ohio historically. That’s a history that ends in the 1930s for Clevelanders.

Native to the deciduous forests of the eastern United States, Castanea dentata—the American chestnut—grows ranging from the mountains of New England to the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains, spilling into the Piedmont Plateau of the Deep South. It was most abundant in southern Appalachia where it accounted for 25–-30% of all trees in the forest.

For an expanding America, the trees proved most useful, providing durable lumber, bark to dye leather, and a dependable annual crop with hundreds of pounds of nuts per tree. Before sowing a single corn seed, pioneering homesteaders of the eastern mountains and the Western Reserve had a ready crop, gathered by the bushel from the forest floor.

The starchy sweet kernels were eaten raw, boiled, baked, and roasted, and were fed to livestock. Once dried, chestnuts stored all winter and were ground into flour. In October, as the nuts rained from the canopy like manna, hunters harvested chestnuts in the form of wild game sustained on the abundance, including wild turkeys with crops and gizzards engorged with chestnuts.

City folk also ate American chestnuts from trees in parks and nearby woods. As the railroads expanded into the mountains, carloads of nuts were brought down to eastern cities where they were sold, freshly roasted, on the street corner.

But in 1904 American chestnuts in the Bronx began dying of what would later be identified as a fungus brought over on nursery stock of Chinese chestnuts. The fungus attacked the trunks through cracks in the bark, and though arborists cut away infected parts, the trees invariably died as the fungus girdled them, breaking the connection between roots and canopy.

From its point of origin the blight rolled through the eastern United States—a wave of destruction for one species of tree and those who enjoyed or depended on it. An Ohio Farm News column from the June 5, 1922 edition of The Plain Dealer announced the arrival of the blight to the Ohio agricultural experiment station in Wooster “and other plantings in northeastern Ohio.”

It took time for the trees to die off. Writing under the initials C.T.R., the author of the October 16, 1932 Plain Dealer column “An Outdoors Diary” lamented:

Our chestnut trees are a long time a-dying. Throughout northern Ohio are hillside forests now dominated by the chestnut’s October yellow. . . [but] It is not what it used to be. For it is the big old trees that are sick and dying. The biggest and oldest are dead.”

In 1936, the discovery of a fallen chestnut burr elicits painful nostalgia for author J.R., writing in the September 18 edition of The Plain Dealer:

“It has been a long time since I have seen a chestnut burr. And it will be longer if ever, until I can find again on a frosty morning downy tipped, rich, polished chestnuts filled with crisp white kernels, newly fallen among brown leaves, and fill my pockets while squirrels scold me soundly. The great chestnuts stand dead . . . I have not for several years visited the friendly trees on the farm where was my home. I’m not anxious to go back to verify my fears.”

Within 50 years, the blight had run its course, killing nearly every tree within the species range, an estimated four billion victims. The tree’s roots remained alive for a time, sending up sprouts, which gave many hope for the trees rebound. But invariably it seemed, before they could produce nuts, the blight would return to kill both the sprouts and the hope.

The fate of the American chestnut was up in the air. As for the fate of chestnuts as food for Americans—the future seemed all but certain.

Ghost of Chestnut’s Present

“You have to look at this with a 1,000-year perspective; knowing that man probably will only allow things to live that benefit him. Turn the chestnut into a valuable crop. If you want to save it, that’s the way to do it,” says Bob Stehli, owner of Wintergreen Tree Farm in Mantua, Ohio’s largest producer of chestnuts.

Born in the 1950s, Bob inherited the world shaped by the blight, his childhood forays into Geauga and Portage county woods littered with rot-resistant chestnut logs and stumps that persevered in sending up sprouts that sometimes flowered. Bob’s career began by experimenting with these sprouts. Chestnut pollination is left to the wind but in order to produce seed, they must exchange pollen with another tree. This system worked fine when the trees were the largest and most numerous in the forest. But in Bob’s experience, small flowering sprouts were few and far between.

“I started thinking, why couldn’t I just take some bloom off of one, put it in a gallon jug and just hang it [next to another flowering sprout]? And so I started doing that and collected a bunch of seed.”

With his collection of pure American seed he planted about an acre in Hiram. But with stern encouragement from the blight and friendly advice from the Society of Ontario Nut Growers, Bob soon abandoned his aspirations to establish a pure American stand. He bought his farm in 1986 and began planting Dunstan chestnuts in 1992.

The Dunstan is a hybrid that originated with the intentional pollination of a rare surviving American tree found in the early 1950s near Salem, Ohio, with pollen from the Chinese species, which is resistant to the fungus. The seed produced became the basis of hope for chestnut lovers and was planted widely in orchards established across the eastern United States in the latter 20th century. Today Bob’s orchard also includes hybrids with blight-resistant Japanese and European species. Thanks to the promiscuity of chestnut hybrids in his and other orchards, American chestnut genes have been escorted safely into the future.

Certainly though, this take on conservation is utilitarian and, to be sustained, it requires customers. And Bob can attest that Americans have largely forgotten the chestnut. His primary customer base includes recent immigrants from Serbia and Croatia, Italy, Korea, and other countries with long culinary relationships with their own species of chestnut, who drive in from Akron and Cleveland and buy 25- or even 100-pound bags “without even batting an eye.”

“If I could get [all Americans] to eat chestnuts like that . . . “, he trails off before looking at the bright side. “There are getting to be more Americans who want to try some different things.”

Bob worries that people looking to try chestnuts will unknowingly buy expensive yet moldy bushels at the grocery store or just not know what to do with them. He takes solace in the trend to visit local farms and, when customers come to “forage” in his you-pick orchard, he readily offers a re-education for the would-be chestnut eater.

Operations like Wintergreen Tree Farm provide the opportunity to experience chestnuts for those of us living in post-blight America. But there is another model for returning chestnuts to our edible landscape. And to see this operation in person, I had to visit a man living next to a rock quarry, just west of Warren.

Ghost of Chestnut’s Future

Joe Reardon had told me about the time he met Ray Gargano at the inaugural meeting of the Ohio chapter of TACF.

“This fellow showed up . . . to tell the group that he’s got chestnuts growing on his neighbor’s property,” Reardon says, “He’s telling us about these 50-foot-tall [reproducing] trees, a whole bunch of them. It sounded a little bit fantastical.”

Turns out, Ray knew what he was talking about.

My arrival at Ray’s Leavittsville home was heralded by crowing roosters and whining dogs. Ray, a former machinist, moved to this rural community in the mid-90s after a work accident precipitated an early retirement. His and his neighbor’s homes sit atop a sandstone formation that lends an exotic feel to the area. A lifelong outdoorsman, Ray enjoyed rambling about his own acreage and got the owner’s permission to do the same on the adjacent property, a partially wooded sandstone quarry that was rarely active. As Ray would learn, well-drained rocky slopes make perfect chestnut habitat, even on the edge of a quarry.

“I started seeing these odd leaves. I always been in the woods all my life, trappin’, huntin’ . . . What are these leaves?”

In addition to the strange leaves, something else caught his attention.

“It looked like a squirrel hide, brown and all stuck together.”

Not of animal origin, the clumps were actually chestnut burrs.

When the experts from the Chestnut Foundation confirmed the stand of large (up to 75 feet), reproducing chestnut sprouts, Ray became their de facto caretaker with an active role in the foundation’s effort to return the species to the forests of the eastern United States

The foundation’s strategy, begun in the late 1980s, has been to breed a chestnut that has the stature and ecological characteristics of the American species, but with the blight resistance of the Chinese species. To accomplish this, pollen from Chinese-American hybrids are back-crossed again and again with flowering American sprouts. Ultimately, seeds that are nearly 100% American are produced. The moment of truth is discovering which of these seeds has retained blight-resistant genes from the Chinese.

Ray’s job is to substitute for wind and wildlife. Using a 50- foot utility bucket, he brings pollen of the most recent backcrosses (supplied by the Chestnut Foundation) to flowering sprouts on his and his neighbor’s property. By covering the flowers with cloth bags he insures their fidelity and that the resulting chestnuts are retained on the branches until he returns to collect them in the fall.

Despite the decades-long reprieve, the blight has returned to Ray’s trees. For blight-stricken sprouts, he still goes through the effort to pollinate the flowers, not knowing if the tree will survive long enough for the nuts to mature. Sometimes they die before the nuts are ready, sometimes the blight takes a while to kill the sprouts.

“They produce like crazy for a year or two before they die”, he says, “somehow they know they’re gonna die and so they really pump it out.”

Seeing the buckets of chestnuts in Ray’s barn—all waiting to be sent off to the Chestnut Foundation’s proving grounds—I’m struck with a thought: Ray is probably one of very few people alive to have gathered and eaten 100% American chestnuts in the woods of Northeast Ohio.

As I share my realization with him, I notice an amused smile spreading across his face, indicating either that he’d already thought of this fact or that my wide-eyed face complete with gaping mouth and thinly veiled jealousy was funny.

“I never ate that many Americans because I turned them in,”

he says, diffusing my forager’s envy before continuing, “But if you are sittin’ out around the campfire and you got one of those hotdog sticks and you stick a bunch of ‘em on there and really brown them over the fire, aww, they’re just like eatin’ outta a sugar bowl. You caramelize it!”

As I prepare to leave, Ray offers me a few American chestnuts to try for myself. I am immediately conflicted. Wouldn’t eating these nuts be like eating the eggs of some endangered sea turtle?

Wrestling my temptation, I think of the seedlings Joe gave me, already planted and waiting to resume growth on my property in the spring. I think of Bob and the tonnage of beautiful chestnuts produced annually at Wintergreen Tree Farm, a short country drive from my house. I think of the hope for the American chestnut, thanks to the work of Ray and many others.

It isn’t easy, but I come to terms with my answer: I’ll wait for my own wild harvest of “downy tipped, rich, polished chestnuts” somewhere around the Forest City.