In the late 1920s in the mountains of western North Carolina, a blight on the American Chestnut tree, caused by an Asian fungus first discovered in New York City, wiped out this amazing species. Before the blight, the chestnut tree had been a valuable resource for its plentiful crop of chestnuts, providing a food source for wildlife in the area and a cash crop for mountain people. Macon County had the largest concentration of chestnuts in western North Carolina and perhaps in the country. The absence of the chestnut tree has dramatically changed the ecology of the area.
Some older Highlanders tell many stories about eating raw, boiled and roasted chestnuts and how the livestock were fattened from the chestnut crop. Typically the trees would grow about five or six feet in diameter and would be about 100 feet tall, but records exist of these trees growing much larger in our area. One on record near Waynesville NC was more than 17 feet in diameter or 53 feet in circumference – a seriously large tree.
The lumber from this species was highly valuable as well because it was not only easy to work with, but it was resistant to rot. Joe Webb, born in Highlands in 1881, designed and built dozens of log cabins in the Highlands area between 1920 and 1940 using primarily lumber from the chestnut trees. The pre-blight wood is clear, but the wormy wood, which was created by moths and beetle infestation, is still favored today.
Now there is an effort by scientists through The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), which is a nonprofit based n Asheville, to restore the American Chestnut Tree to western North Carolina. There is a tremendous effort underway to restore the American Chestnut Tree through a program of cross breeding of the trees with the Chinese chestnut to make the tree resistant to the fungus. Scientists are producing trees that are more than 90 percent American Chestnut and are working on a plan to reintroduce the chestnuts back into the forest. This of course is a long term process that will take upwards of 50 years before a large scale of regeneration takes place, but there is great hope that the next generation will have the opportunity to walk through the regenerated forest of American Chestnut Trees.
The Foundation encourages people to plant native Chestnut seeds on their property. The resistant seeds are available to members of the TACF. For more information on The American Chestnut Foundation, go to www.acf.org. For more information on the Highlands Plateau, contact any of the full time brokers at Meadows Mountain Realty at 828-526-1717 or 828-526-4101 or by email at [email protected].