This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, That Old Chestnut: A Nutty Tale of Love, Loss, and Reconnection, first released on November 8, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: All right. Here we go. First American chestnut!
CYNTHIA GRABER: First chestnut! …Mmm.
GRABER: That’s very sweet.
GRABER: Sweet and starchy. It’s delicious.
TWILLEY: I have eaten plenty of chestnuts before. But this was different. It was my very first *American* chestnut. Or at least, mostly American chestnut. And that’s kind of a big deal, which is why we’re making an entire episode about it. That’s right, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. Personally, I’d never eaten chestnuts plain like this, at least as far as I can remember. I’ve had chestnut honey and chestnut flour crepes, but never just whole boiled chestnuts. But actually, what we were doing, once upon a time, this was normal—chestnuts were one of the most common things you could eat in the fall on the East Coast.
TWILLEY: Until they were wiped out by a deadly disease. For nearly a hundred years now, the American chestnut has been functionally extinct. This episode, we’ve got the story of America’s former favorite nut—how we loved it, lost it, and now are trying to win it back again.
GRABER: This episode was supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
DONALD DAVIS: Well, certainly you can make the argument in an eastern North America, there’s no other tree species that was, you know, shaping the culture and the economy and the landscape, as the American chestnut did. So it was very important.
TWILLEY: This is Don Davis, he’s the author of The American Chestnut: An Environmental History. He told us that the American chestnut was so beloved that it was known as America’s perfect tree.
GRABER: Of course the chestnut was around even before humans considered it so useful. There have been chestnuts in North America for thirty to forty million years. And they thrived in forests all over the eastern US., from Maine down to the Florida panhandle.
TWILLEY: Along with being called perfect, the chestnut was also called the king of the eastern forest. But Don says that doesn’t mean it was the most common tree, necessarily. Further north, maybe only ten percent of the forest was chestnuts. Nearly twenty percent in Connecticut, which used to be called the Chestnut State, rather than the Constitution State.
GRABER: But as you went further south, the forests and mountains would have been full of chestnuts. In Appalachia, chestnuts might have been as much as 30 percent of the forests.
DAVIS: The Cherokee Indians claim that part of their reservation in Western North Carolina contained as much as 60% American chestnuts. So it depends on where you are. You could walk through some forest and, you know, every other tree might be chestnut, and walk through other forest and, you know, one in 10 trees might be the chestnut.
GRABER: Most of us can’t picture either of those, I’ve lived on the east coast my entire life and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen even one chestnut tree in the forest. But for millions of years, they grew fast, tall, and straight, and they towered over the other trees around them.
DAVIS: And in the area around the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in Western North Carolina or East Tennessee, they sometimes reach diameters of nine feet. Of 10 feet. I discuss in the book about a person who actually lived inside a chestnut log that was so large that a six foot four man could literally walk into the log and walk out. So sometimes you hear that the American chestnut was the redwood of the East, and that’s partly because they could grow to such large sizes.
GRABER: But chestnuts weren’t just awe-inspiring and a potential home for a six-foot tall mountain man, they were also incredibly useful.
DAVIS: You find an almost reverence among Native American groups for the chestnut. Certainly the Cherokees were very dependent upon the chestnut. The Iroquois, the Haudenosonee, those groups, certainly utilized chestnuts for everything from food to canoes to building their homes. Chestnut bark was a wonderful construction material. It was rot resistant and it repelled water. So they used the bark of the chestnut, for the siding of their cabins and living quarters.
TWILLEY: There’s also tons of archaeological evidence showing that Native American tribes loved nothing more than a chestnut roasted over an open fire. And when they weren’t eating them that way, they also ground them up to make chestnut flour.
DAVIS: We see definitely, Native American groups making an unleavened bread from chestnuts, making sort of a dumpling.
GRABER: Chestnuts were so critical that for the Chocktaws, in their creation story, the chestnut was one of the very first living things brought into the world by the creator. That’s how important it was.
DAVIS: For other groups like the Creeks, the Creeks actually named their month of October as big chestnut moon. So, October the chestnuts are falling from the trees, and that was important for them.
TWILLEY: When European colonists first arrived in North America, they immediately recognized this all-important tree. In Europe, the European chestnut is common and it’s a close relative of the American chestnut. But they’re not identical.
DAVIS: Most of the folks who saw chestnuts in America were, you know, certainly elated that there were chestnut in North America, but they were a little bit disappointed in the size.
GRABER: American chestnuts are only maybe a half inch to an inch around, that’s like maybe a dime or a nickel in American change. The European chestnut is typically twice as big as that, one to two inches in diameter.
TWILLEY: But size isn’t everything when it comes to nuts. The American chestnut had other things going for it.
DAVIS: First colonists almost always mentioned the sweetness. And some even say, you know, they were sweet as sugar. But they were disappointed with the size of the nut. But that didn’t stop them from eating them. So they were bartering chestnuts with Native American groups. They were gathering them. I even found evidence that probably the very first trick or treaters were given chestnuts as treats.
GRABER: Based on my first taste of American chestnuts, that actually sounds like a great idea, I’d love to receive chestnuts as a treat!
TWILLEY: Especially because all that deliciousness comes alongside a very generous helping of protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, particularly vitamin C, which would have otherwise been pretty thin on the ground in winter.
GRABER: Everyone loved the chestnut. The Europeans, like the Native Americans, they also recognized the awesomeness of the chestnut tree for construction. Especially when it came to building fences! Yes, colonists brought the fence to a very unfenced land and created private property with the help of the chestnut.
DAVIS: So almost all the fences that were made, from let’s say the late 1600s all the way up through, you know, the Antebellum period, were made with chestnut.
GRABER: One of the reasons chestnut wood was so popular was because, as we said, the trees grew straight and tall and created these wide beautiful boards. But also early colonists, like Native Americans, they used rot-resistant chestnut bark as shingles for the sides and roofs of their barns and homes.
TWILLEY: Including the homes of the founding fathers. Jefferson loved a good chestnut shingle.
DAVIS: The original Monticello structure actually had literally thousands of shingles incorporated in the roof.
TWILLEY: As America industrialized, the American chestnut became even more important. More than a million chestnut trees were logged to build the first telegraph and telephone poles. Hundreds of thousands more were cut down to use as railroad ties. And then chestnut bark was essential for tanning leather—they ground it up and made a sort of compost tea that contained enough tannic acid to cure hides.
GRABER: And of course they ate the nuts. So we’ve been talking about the direct ways that people used chestnut trees. But there’s a huge use that’s kind of indirect, and it’s the fact that chestnuts were also an invaluable source of food for the creatures that live in the forest.
DAVIS: Incredibly important. In fact, I would sort of argue that probably the biggest contribution that the American chestnut made to North American history was its contribution as a wildlife food.
TWILLEY: All the birds obviously loved chestnuts—blue jays and grouse and wild turkeys. And lots of furry animals were super into chestnuts too.
DAVIS: Bear, whitetail deer, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks… So, because of the American chestnut and because it yielded incredible amounts of nuts, these species thrived and really, you know, were able to reproduce in numbers that probably you don’t see today.
GRABER: And the colonists ate a lot of those animals that ate the chestnuts. And so when the chestnuts came into season in the fall, it was kind of a huge party, all up and down the Eastern seaboard. People roasted chestnuts on the street corner in the cities; in the countryside they went on chestnut frolics.
DAVIS: You know, a primary way for folks in the mid and late 1800s to entertain themself was to, you know, go on these chestnut frolics and pick chestnuts.
TWILLEY: There are lots of songs about going “a’chestnutting” that sadly only exist as sheet music today—they’re too old for recordings. But you can imagine that “Chestnuts on the Brain” and “Opening the Chestnut Burr” were complete bangers in their day.
DAVIS: So it was celebrated in song. Chestnuts were important even in art. Chestnuts were part of the vocabulary.
GRABER: You’ve probably heard of chestnut-colored hair or maybe even a chestnut horse, you can probably picture what color that means, a deep reddish brown, but it’s funny to think of calling a hair color after a tree and a nut we never see anymore. There’s even an old saying that a kind of stale, often-told joke is a quote, old chestnut. I’d never heard that personally—
DAVIS: But, you know, I’m old enough to still use that expression and do hear it used from time to time.
TWILLEY: You and Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies both. Don, you’re in great company.
DR. EVIL: They raised me to be evil. You know, that old chestnut.
DAVIS: That expression comes from the fact that the American chestnut was so prolific and it was everywhere. It was so common that, you know, these common expressions were also referred to as chestnuts.
TWILLEY: But pretty soon, between the logging, and the roasting, and the frolicking, the chestnut started to be in short supply. Even though there had been so many chestnut trees in the forests and the nuts were so abundant, the Northeast started using them all up. By the early years of the 1800s, local newspapers in places like Boston, New York, and Philly would have scary headlines about quote “chestnut famines”!
GRABER: One solution in northern cities was to import chestnuts from Europe, after all, those were even bigger than American chestnuts. In fact, there had even been some European chestnut trees growing in the US since the 1700s, so importing the nuts was a natural.
TWILLEY: But also, thanks to the all the railways built with chestnut timber, those chestnut hungry northern cities could now get their fix from the rural south and especially the Appalachian Mountains, where chestnut was truly king.
DAVIS: Yeah, so you could argue that many communities in Appalachia were literally chestnut dependent. Without the chestnut, they had no other means of feeding themselves, feeding their livestock.
GRABER: Even before the chestnut crash in the north and the expansion of the railways, the folks in Appalachia already depended on the chestnut. They ate them in the fall and stored them to use in soups and stews over the winter—and they fed it to their animals over the winter, too.
DAVIS: The pigs would feed exclusively on chestnuts. In fact, it would actually flavor the pork. And that’s something you see today in Italy.
TWILLEY: Chestnut-finished ham is indeed a thing in Italy, France, and Spain, and it is as delicious as it sounds. But *after* the railways came, chestnuts became even more central to survival in rural Appalachia—chestnuts were one of the few things families could sell to get hold of some cold hard cash. In fact, sometimes chestnuts were a replacement for cash.
DAVIS: So you would take chestnuts to the local store and you would trade those chestnuts for sugar flour, coffee, shoes. I even found evidence of people buying newspaper subscriptions using chestnuts. Paying lawyers with chestnuts. Because it was, you know, literally possible to gather bushes and bushels.
GRABER: And feed the chestnut-hungry northerners who craved that lovely scent of fall and winter emanating from every street corner.
NAT KING COLE: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… Jack Frost nipping at your door…
TWILLEY: Ah, the holidays. But just as Americans were at their most chestnut-obsessed, chestnut-dependent, and chestnut-wild—just as we reached peak chestnut culturally, disaster struck. In the form of the deadly chestnut blight.
DAVIS: Oh, yes. I mean, some of the early responses, particularly in the northeast towards this, was kind of apocalyptic. You know, it could be the end of the world kind of thing. I quote a minister in the New York City area who talked about equating chestnut blight with the plagues of Egypt. There was one woman that I interviewed, back in the 1990s who grew up in the Appalachians. She just said, I couldn’t imagine a world without chestnuts. It was just part of who we were. And another gentleman even said, when they observed the blight in their community, they thought, quote, the whole world was going to die.
GRABER: So what was this mysterious disease that would come to basically wipe out all America’s chestnuts? Where did it come from? Didn’t anyone try to stop it? That story’s coming up, after the break.
TWILLEY: So scientifically, chestnut blight is not in fact a biblical plague or a horseman of the Apocalypse.
DAVIS: Yeah. So chestnut blight is a fungus. It’s an organism called Cryphonectria parasitica. And Cryphonectria parasitica is a fungus that is almost invisible when it first attacks the tree. You really don’t see it. In fact, if you walk through the woods, it could be there and you would never know it. Eventually though, it starts creating these little sort of, brown bubbles that then turn orange. And once they turn orange, you really know that that tree has the fungus.
GRABER: That’s the external sign of blight, these orange cankers, but by the time you can see them, the fungus has already wound its way through the tree. It sends out these hair-like filaments, they’re called mycelia, and they do two things. They choke off the network within the tree that transports sap, like a tree’s blood vessels, and they also release a toxin that kills plant cells so the fungus can get at the cells for food. The entire tree—everything above the canker—dies within months of a canker appearing.
DAVIS: You know, it’s a very lethal fungus. It’s probably one of the most lethal organisms in terms of the introduced organisms that attack trees.
TWILLEY: Introduced is the key word here. Not that anyone knew where the blight came from when it was first detected, in the Bronx Zoo, one summer’s day in 1904.
DAVIS: Gentleman by the name of Hermann Merkel, was told by some groundskeepers at the Bronx Zoo that trees were dying.
GRABER: So he saw these orange cankers on the trees, and he sent a sample of them over to a scientist who was an expert in fungi over at the nearby New York Botanical Garden.
DAVIS: And next year he said: Yes, this is a fungus. This is what’s killing the trees. I don’t have any clue really what the fungus is. But ,it looks very lethal.
GRABER: He suggested they spray the trees with a fungicide to try to kill the canker and stop the spread of the disease. They even cut down some diseased trees. But the fungus had already spread beyond their control.
DAVIS: And it looked very obvious just within a few years, that this fungus was going to kill every tree, not only on the Bronx Zoo grounds, but also the next door New York Botanical Garden.
TWILLEY: Before long, though, the Bronx was the least of their problems. Blight was spreading like wildfire, there were dead trees reported all over New Jersey and Long Island by 1906. And, like I said, at first, no one knew where this deadly disease came from.
DAVIS: When you look at all the evidence, you really sort of see that where the blight was popping up in those early years is where people were growing Japanese chestnut trees. So that was kind of the smoking gun.
GRABER: A few years after the blight was first discovered, one scientist theorized it had come over on those Japanese chestnut trees. These trees had been imported into the US for a few decades already, because the trees didn’t grow as tall as American chestnuts and they had larger nuts, and that made them perfect for commercial growers.
TWILLEY: This one scientist noticed that not only were cases of blight springing up near where Japanese chestnut trees were growing, but also the Japanese trees didn’t seem to be bothered by it.
GRABER: Not everyone believed his theory at the time, that the blight came from Japan, but a few years later, two people separately identified those orange cankers from chestnut blight on Japanese trees in Japan, and the trees didn’t die. Case solved. The blight had come into the US on Japanese chestnut trees.
TWILLEY: But figuring that out didn’t actually help much. The disease was already here, and it was spreading really fast. This particular fungus produces two types of spores—one that can be picked up by the wind and another one that is bigger, but can move around in water droplets and on the feet of squirrels and birds. So it was super hard to stop.
GRABER: People panicked. Sometimes they just quickly cut down the most sickly looking trees, but they also tried anything they could think of to kill the fungus itself.
DAVIS: They tried remedies such as, you know, injecting chemicals into the trees, putting, you know, mud packs on the cankers of the trees. Putting all kinds of, if not chemicals, all kinds of substances on the trees. Pouring fertilizers of various kinds on the roots of trees. They tried everything, really. But nothing really worked.
TWILLEY: This perfect American tree, this redwood of the East—it was just vanishing in front of people’s eyes.
DAVIS: So the trees sort of become these kind of gray ghost-like skeletons, in a matter of several years. So when you looked across, you know, the mountain side, let’s say in Western North Carolina or Southwest Virginia, you would literally see for miles and miles, these just dead skeleton-like trees, you know, standing in the forest.
GRABER: And the end result of this ecological disaster was the loss of an estimated four or five BILLION chestnut trees. Billion. It really was apocalyptic.
TWILLEY: And that’s the conventional story—well, really, the tragedy—of what happened to the American Chestnut. We loved it, it was perfect, and then the blight came and took it away. But the reality is a little more complicated. First of all, the American chestnut was already halfway out the door by the time the blight arrived.
DAVIS: Ink disease literally probably wiped out a fourth of the range of the American chestnut well before and long before the chestnut blight was introduced in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
GRABER: Ink disease is another tree disease, it’s a mold that also kills chestnuts, and it seems to have been introduced on European trees even before the blight struck. And that wasn’t the only thing attacking chestnuts.
DAVIS: It appears that chestnuts were already sort of suffering from insect infestations. A lot of chestnut wood had become wormy. Now, the trees often didn’t die from the insect infestation that caused the little holes in the trees, but it certainly weakened them.
TWILLEY: So chestnuts were already under attack from other pests and diseases, and then remember that we pestilential humans had managed to cut down millions of them for our railroads and telegraph poles and leather and everything else we used the chestnut for. Don says it was particularly popular for coffins.
GRABER: But wait, there’s more—chestnuts really were having a tough time even before the blight arrived.
DAVIS: You also saw damage from forest fires. There was almost like an epidemic of forest fires in the late 1800s, early 1900s in most forests in the eastern United States. Fires caused by locomotive sparks, people setting fires to the woods. But, in any event, the American chestnut was not as healthy as it could be, and should have been, just before the blight hit.
TWILLEY: So really, in a lot of ways, the blight was just the nail in the ever popular chestnut coffin, so to speak. And, even after the blight arrived, we managed to make matters worse thanks to a healthy combination of fatalism and greed.
GRABER: From the very beginning, one of the ideas to stop the blight was to cut down infected trees but also cut down healthy trees around them as kind of a barrier. But that became basically the de facto management plan, just cut down all the trees possible—probably because people thought they’d die anyway, so might as well snatch up all the healthy wood and use it while you could.
DAVIS: With each passing year, you find more and more people sort of accepting the fact that the trees were not going to come back and that the future forest was not going to have American chestnuts in them.
TWILLEY: And pretty soon, it seemed like those voices of doom were right. But it took a while—even in the 1940s, there were still plenty of chestnuts in the south, not to mention big band trombonists tooting their horns about chestnut frolics.
SINGER: Underneath the spreading chestnut tree, I loved him and he loved me. There I used to sit up on his knee…
CHORUS: ‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.
GRABER: But basically by about 1950, the trees were considered functionally extinct. That doesn’t mean that there were and even are no American chestnuts around. There are still a few million chestnut trees out there, but they’re mostly stumps. Remember, the canker kills everything above the orange splotch, so depending on where that fungus landed on the tree and created a canker, well, everything below it might still be living.
DAVIS: Basically, in the forest today, you have chestnut trees that resprout from stumps. These trees usually grow 10 or 12 feet high. They may blossom, they may produce nuts, but, by that time, the fungus usually kills them. And there are literally millions of these stump sprouts growing in places like on the Appalachian Trail.
TWILLEY: But they’re a shadow of their former selves. Forests full of huge chestnut trees, and all their nuts that so many creatures, not just humans, depended on—those really are gone. Let’s have a moment of silence.
GRABER: Or maybe a moment of song, by a group called the Magpies.
The chestnut was a giant tree, tall and straight in majesty
Till logging and the killin’ blight took them all away
Now the trees are gone, but the roots hang on
They send their shoots up to meet the dawn
The blight will find them ‘fore they’re grown and stop them on their way
But they’ll come back some day…
TWILLEY: Yeah, I’m going with a moment of silence.
GRABER: But like the Magpies sing, maybe chestnuts will come back some day. Some people never gave up on America’s perfect tree. Can we restore our native chestnut forests to their original glory? That’s coming up after the break.
TWILLEY: Over the past decades, a lot of people have tried a lot of things to bring back the American chestnut. One approach was discovered sort of by accident when the chestnut blight popped up in Europe. Some diseased trees snuck into Italy, no one is quite sure how, and the blight started spreading across the continent.
GRABER: A scientist in Italy noticed that some European chestnut trees developed that blight-y orange canker, but these trees healed the canker over. What he discovered was that another disease, a virus, attacks the blight and prevents it from fully killing the trees. This looked super promising as a control strategy.
TWILLEY: In the 1960s in France, they started treating chestnut orchards with these viruses, and within a decade, the blight had ground to a halt. Victory!
GRABER: Well, maybe for Europe. In America, the viruses just didn’t work well. Some trees were protected by this approach, but most weren’t. It seems like the European trees had some native protection or resistance to the blight, and so the virus was just one extra boost to save them. No one really knows why only some American trees were saved, maybe there was something special about those trees, but generally that approach really doesn’t work here.
TWILLEY: Another approach is to find American trees that weren’t killed by the fungus—that maybe had some resistance. Because it turns out that as well as those stumps that resprout and keep trying to grow until the blight gets them, there’s also a few big healthy American chestnuts still out there.
DAVIS: Literally several hundred trees that actually grow to mature size. There’s something about their DNA, let’s say, that allows them to be stronger and hardier and they’re actually producing nuts in the forest. So, yes, you can find very few large living chestnut trees in the forest, but they’re out there.
TWILLEY: There might have been more out there, if we hadn’t cut down so many healthy trees trying to get at the wood when the blight was at its peak.
GRABER: And some of those trees might have had some reservoir of blight-resistant DNA. But anyway, every so often, some lucky person stumbles upon a mature chestnut. It happened just this summer in Delaware, the local NPR station had a story about one guy’s discovery—
JIM WHITE: Oh, here’s, right here. Here it is.
CHRIS PARISH: And it’s definitely the only one in Delaware? The only known one?
WHITE: The only big one.
PARISH: What it is is a 65 foot tall American chestnut with an 18 inch diameter.
TWILLEY: Which is big. The guy who found it is a plant nerd, and he was out hunting deer when he noticed this one tree that looked different from all the others—but it was kind of like something he remembered seeing before, a long long time ago.
BRETT LANDON: And I’m like, that looks like it could be chestnut wood, because I remember when I was a kid seeing the chestnuts laying in the forest floor. They weather just a certain way.
PARISH: The verification process took more than two years, and the verdict was? Pure American Chestnut.
LANDON: I’d never seen a live, mature, beautiful one. I mean, because they’re almost gone. So I’m like, holy, no way.
GRABER: Holy yes way! And that tree’s not alone, there’s a particularly large grove in Michigan—large at least by today’s standards. They’re another source of potentially blight resistant American chestnut DNA.
TWILLEY: No one knows for sure if these big survivors are blight resistant or just lucky—but one group of chestnut restoration enthusiasts figures that the trees might be resistant. So they collect pollen from these big survivor trees and breed them together, and then they test their little baby trees by infecting them with blight and seeing if they survive.
DAVIS: And with each generation breeding those trees back to other trees that have survived the blight and eventually producing a tree that is blight resistant.
GRABER: This sounds like it could work, if these large mature American chestnut trees are actually blight resistant, and if they’re able to produce a new generation that repeatedly survives the blight, but—
DAVIS: The problem with this approach is that it could take a really long time. You know, we’re talking many decades or even more than a century.
TWILLEY: The issue is we’re talking about trees here, so they can take forever to become mature enough to reproduce and even longer to be sure that they can live their natural 80+ year life without getting struck down by blight. But, even so, volunteers and researchers are busy planting the most promising saplings and they’ll keep us all posted. Don’t hold your breath…
DAVIS: But it does show promise. And it does mean that we’re restoring a truly 100% American chestnut and not a hybrid or tree that has transgenes, wheat genes, inserted in them.
GRABER: Hybrid trees and genetically-engineered trees, those are the other two major approaches, and frankly they’re the ones that are the furthest along these days. So to start with hybrid: Chinese chestnut trees are mostly resistant to chestnut blight, because the blight evolved in Asia and so they evolved together. The idea is to cross American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts.
DAVIS: When you do that, you get an offspring that’s half Chinese and half American. Those trees, sometimes survive the blight, sometimes do not.
TWILLEY: But even if they do survive, there’s still a problem. You can’t go and just plant them in the forest and expect everything to get back to normal. The Chinese trees are like their Japanese cousins—they have large nuts but they’re much shorter trees: 40 foot or 50 foot tall compared to eighty foot plus for full-grown American chestnuts. If you plant a short hybrid chestnut in the forest, it’ll struggle to get tall enough to get enough sunlight to make nuts.
GRABER: So what scientists do is they take the half-and-half hybrids that are blight resistant, and they breed those back with American chestnut trees again and again to get a tree that’s nearly all American, it’s super tall and straight and wide, it’s got sweet nuts—
DAVIS: So it looks and walks and talks more like an American chestnut, but has enough of the Chinese genes in it that it survives the blight.
TWILLEY: The folks taking this approach, the American Chestnut Foundation, they’ve arrived at a tree that’s apparently 96 percent American, and also apparently blight-tolerant, and they’re very excited about it. Dolly Parton’s a big fan. Her uncle is one of the main guys leading this restoration effort.
DOLLY PARTON: Twenty five years, I’ve been hearing about them dang chestnut trees. He’s trying to bring them back. Fact, we even wrote a song about it. We can’t sing it now because it’s new and we ain’t learned it that good. You have but I haven’t.
GRABER: We love you Dolly, but unfortunately there isn’t even a good recording of the song, which is truly a shame. But the other problem is that it’s not clear that all these mostly American, slightly Chinese hybrids will all be fully blight resistant when they’re grown-ups. It’s turned out to be really hard to combine all these American characteristics with enough Asian blight resistance.
DAVIS: They show promise that they’re able to survive for long periods of time. But the jury’s still out, I think, on the back cross breeding program.
TWILLEY: Right now, thousands of these hybrid mostly American chestnuts are being planted on former mountain tops that were strip mined in Appalachia. And some of them are surviving. So stay tuned.
GRABER: And now onto those trans-gene or genetically modified trees that Don mentioned earlier—it’s the most recent approach and it’s probably the most controversial.
BROADCASTER: Some chestnuts here are like no others in nature. About half the nuts harvested at this experiment station have an added gene. It provides tolerance to a blight that all but wiped out the American chestnut tree generations ago.
SCIENTIST: We have to bag them because of permit conditions right now.
BROADCASTER: Researchers will soon seek federal permission to distribute the modified tree for a restoration effort.
TWILLEY: GMOs! They’re not just for corn, they’re for chestnuts too!
GRABER: What makes Chinese trees resistant is not a single gene, so it’s not like scientists could just find that blight-resistant gene and stick it into an American tree. So they’ve tried a different approach.
TWILLEY: Remember we said one of the ways the blight kills trees is by secreting a toxin that damages chestnut tree cells so the fungus can eat them. That toxin is called oxalic acid. So researchers found a gene in wheat that has the instructions for an enzyme that neutralizes oxalic acid. Put that gene in a chestnut tree’s DNA, and you’re basically giving the tree the tools to starve the fungus.
GRABER: This approach has been moving along. Scientists have grown infection-resistant GMO trees on a university site. They’ve tested the environmental impacts, like whether the pollen affects bumblebees or the fallen leaves affect insects and frogs. So far it’s looking pretty good.
DAVIS: Of course, this is quite controversial. Lots of groups do not want to see folks go this route.
TWILLEY: Don is a little nervous about this approach himself. Even despite all the tests, people are still worried about what having a big tree producing that much of this enzyme might do to everything else that lives in the forest.
GRABER: This enzyme is found in wheat, that’s where the scientists took the gene making it from. It’s also found in strawberries and bananas. But a chestnut tree is a lot bigger than stalks of wheat or strawberries growing on the ground, and it will be making a lot more of this particular chemical.
TWILLEY: And that chemical will be in the chestnut leaves as they fall to the ground and so it could get into the soil and the water and, again, despite the tests, no one knows for sure what that would do over the long term. Honestly, it might well do nothing at all.
DAVIS: We really don’t know, and we can only know, I would argue, after these trees are in the forest for many, many years, right? So if a genetically modified tree survives in the forest 20 or 30, 40 years, then and only then will we know its full and true impact on the ecosystem.
GRABER: Researchers working on genetically engineered chestnuts want to be able to grow these trees in the wild, release them back into their original homes. They’re waiting on approval from three different federal agencies, and those agencies are also listening to public comments, and the decision is supposed to come some time next summer. Personally, I hear Don’s concerns, but it seems like there are a lot of benefits, and the scientists aren’t going to be growing millions and millions of modified chestnuts overnight. I don’t know, I think it has promise.
TWILLEY: Frankly, though, if we’re being real: none of these methods are going to bring back the American chestnut in our generation or even our kids’ kids’ generation.
DAVIS: Well, you know, even folks who are optimistic and let’s say the fungus went away tomorrow or that, you know, a GE tree was developed or a hybrid tree was developed. You know, given what I know about ecological history, environmental history, it would take probably a good millennium for these trees to return to the forest at levels they were 200 years ago. It’s just that difficult to spread trees across a forest.
GRABER: It’s not just that it takes a long time to plant chestnuts and see them grow to maturity, there’s also a lot out there that can kill chestnuts today. Deer eat them when they’re baby trees, and there are a lot of deer around because we killed their predators. Then there are introduced insects that also attack chestnuts.
TWILLEY: And let’s not forget about our old friend the ink disease, which is still hanging out in the soil, no doubt licking its lips at the idea of getting hold of some American chestnuts again. And that’s before we get to pollution, development, and climate change, which are all eating into the American chestnut’s traditional range.
DAVIS: Chestnut restoration is not going to happen overnight. And I know folks don’t like to hear that, but, you know, it’s a long term undertaking.
TWILLEY: That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But it does mean we’re unlikely to be going on chestnut frolics in the forest anytime soon.
GRABER: But here’s something that seemed a little weird to me—I’ve seen chestnuts at farmers markets on the east coast, and they’ve been grown here on the east coast. So where do those chestnuts come from?
TWILLEY: So this is interesting. The chestnuts you still find roasting on street corners—those are imported. Ninety-five percent of all the chestnuts Americans eat are imported. But the whole point of a farmers market is that the people there are selling food they’ve grown. Which means there must be American chestnut farmers. Or at least chestnut farmers who are Americans.
DAVID BRYANT: I’m David Bryant and this is my wife Kim.
KIM BRYANT: And we are in the middle of Bryant Farm in Shipman, Virginia. And this is our chestnut orchard.
DAVID BRYANT: We’re nutty for chestnuts. I don’t know how else to describe it.
GRABER: Nicky and I drove a couple hours out of Richmond, Virginia, into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Which are in Appalachia.
TWILLEY: David grew up in the area, but he’d left to work as a software engineer. He wanted to move back with Kim, but they also wanted a retirement plan—something that could pay the mortgage on the land and keep them busy.
GRABER: They decided to start some kind of farm. Because it’s so hilly there, it’s not great for row crops like wheat or vegetables. Kim was into the idea of angora goats and she mentioned getting a spinning wheel, and David was like, no.
TWILLEY: And then one day David was at the airport and he picked up a magazine for the flight.
DAVID BRYANT: And the magazine was Hobby Farmer. I’ll do a shoutout to them.
GRABER: The article was by a guy in Delaware, and it was all about growing chestnuts.
DAVID BRYANT: That was really the epiphany, as far as chestnuts. I was going like, well I never… So, that’s how it all began. Now, when I read the article, I was going like, you know, chestnuts used to be all over this part of the country. So they were huge. They were huge. They were everywhere. So I was going like, well, it’s a—it’s a good fit. If we could find something blight resistant, it actually works.
TWILLEY: And, as it turns out, there are blight resistant trees for sale. I know, I know, we just told you the whole saga of how hard it is to develop a blight resistant American chestnut. And it is hard. But these trees, the ones the gentleman in Hobby Farmer was growing, they’re hybrids that haven’t gone through as many generations of cross-breeding as Dolly Parton’s trees.
GRABER: What that means is they have a lot of Chinese characteristics, not just the blight resistance—and from David’s perspective as a farmer, some of the ways in which they physically resemble Chinese trees are actually a net positive.
DAVID BRYANT: An American chestnut tree will grow very tall. These will not, these will hopefully top out at 45 feet or so. And we actually, from a nut production, we don’t want them to get so tall that we can’t manage them. Then it becomes, you know, not practical.
TWILLEY: So the hybrids looked like a good bet. At this point, Kim had never even tasted a chestnut, but they crunched the numbers—the hybrids are known for being super productive and their nuts are sweet like American chestnuts but larger like their Chinese parents. And so it seemed like it might all add up.
KIM BRYANT: So we started planting trees. We planted 200 the first year in 2008, and the deer ate the trees.
GRABER: That was kind of expensive deer food.
KIM BRYANT: And so next year we went big and planted the trees and we put tree tubes on them.
TWILLEY: And that stopped the deer, and the trees grew nicely in their orderly rows.
GRABER: Kim and David still had to wait patiently—or impatiently—it takes four to five years for a chestnut tree to produce nuts. But eventually the trees got to the right age, and then they all flowered… they have beautiful blooms and it does look spectacular, but that’s not what stood out to David and Kim.
DAVID BRYANT: When they—when they’re in bloom, you’ll be like, what is that horrid smell?
KIM BRYANT: It’s, it’s manure-ish. With a sweet tint, I think is what I would call it. It’s not ideal, but it’s only for a little while. And then the chestnuts come on.
TWILLEY: We could see some not-quite-ripe chestnut burrs up at the tops of the trees—they looked like these bizarre Dr. Seuss-like lime green spiny blobs just kind of attached to the end of the branches.
KIM BRYANT: So when chestnuts grow, they grow into this kind of green burr. And, when harvest comes, they are starting to dry up and turn brown.
GRABER: When the burrs turn brown and dry out, they kind of shrink back, and that lets the nuts pop out and fall to the floor on their own. Other times, the brown burrs fall to the ground and they pop open and the shiny, well, chestnut-colored chestnuts pop out of their protective covering. Either way, once the nuts hit the ground, Kim and David have to be fast.
KIM BRYANT: We pick chestnuts almost every day during harvest season because we are racing, of course the squirrels, but the deer and we also have bears on this property that love the chestnuts.
TWILLEY: Unlike the Americans of old, who went out a chestnutting for fun and gathered their nuts by hand, David and Kim have invested in some equipment, borrowed from the pecan industry. Their harvesting machine has these rubber fingers and you run it along the ground and it scoops up everything in its path.
GRABER: But when there aren’t a lot of nuts out, or when the ground is too wet for the machinery to work well, then David and Kim head out with what looks like a long metal hand-held stick with a oval-shaped wire cage on the end.
DAVID BRYANT: All right. So we call them the footballs. Because, well, they’re somewhat shaped like a football and I think they’re nut wizards is what they are. And you roll that over the nut, it pops inside the cage and then you just—so, all right, so we have some nuts right down here. You’ll see, it’s pretty easy.
TWILLEY: Of course, I needed to have a go with this nut wizard.
KIM BRYANT: You just push down a little bit—
TWILLEY: [LAUGHS] It’s so easy!
GRABER: I watched as Nicky rolled and pushed—the wire is flexible so it kind of opens a bit as she pressed against the chestnut to let them in, then it snapped back into place to keep them in.
KIM BRYANT: That’s how we manually harvest. David and I picked the other day and we filled a five gallon bucket in less than an hour because it was just so many on the ground.
GRABER: Oh look. Oh yeah.
TWILLEY: Here we go. Here we go.
TWILLEY: I’m like a vacuum cleaner now. I’m just like, there’s no stopping me. What have I got in here? Like—
GRABER: At least a good dozen. You’ll be getting up to two dozen soon. Look, because you got a big clump right here.
TWILLEY: Oh, it’s the mother lode. Look at this!
TWILLEY: Sometimes the nuts had already come out of the burr and were just lying on the ground loose, but sometimes the burr had split open but the nuts were still kind of nestled inside it. I made the mistake of trying to open one of those ones up with my hands.
TWILLEY: Don’t accidentally touch a—I got a—one of the burrs.
GRABER: Oh, I wanted to try to see what it feel like. Is that bad?
DAVID BRYANT: Oh, no, you should, you should definitely, you should definitely experiment with that.
GRABER: Okay, so I’m going to go—
TWILLEY: Don’t listen to him. [LAUGHTER]
DAVID BRYANT: They’re super sticky.
GRABER: They’re very prickly.
DAVID BRYANT: They’ll stick through leather gloves.
TWILLEY: That’s like, cactus style.
KIM BRYANT: Even the green ones, you’d think that they would be softer. They’re just not. And then when they get brown, they will actually cut you. They’re very, very sharp.
GRABER: Instead of trying to open them with your hands, you’re supposed to kind of step on the edge of the burr and pop the chestnuts out so you can pick them up with the wire football. I didn’t do so well at popping them out with my foot, but David told me I just needed more practice.
TWILLEY: I, on the other hand, was hired on the spot.
[LOUD DRUM OF CHESTNUTS FALLING INTO A BUCKET]
TWILLEY: Listen and weep, folks! That’s the sound of my very first chestnut harvest going into the bucket.
DAVID BRYANT: That is our version of ka-ching. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: Nicky, you’re still out here, searching for chestnuts.
TWILLEY: It is totally addictive. I feel like, you know how people get into, like, metal detector stuff? I kind of feel like that.
GRABER: I left Nicky wandering around David and Kim’s farm, it’s a beautiful orchard of well-spaced trees in organized lines that got plenty of light. And each tree provides dozens of pounds of chestnuts each year. But if our end goal is to repopulate the forests of Appalachia with their lost American chestnuts, why does a hybrid farm like this matter? It’s not the same thing.
TWILLEY: Well, for one, a lot of creatures that used to depend on American chestnuts in the forest now come to Kim and David’s farm for an almost all-you-can-eat buffet. There were so many birds there with us. Of course there were squirrels. And sometimes they get even bigger visitors.
KIM BRYANT: I took a video of a mama bear laying on the ground eating the chestnuts, and the cubs were actually in the tree. And they were just having the best time. She was fat and happy in the sunshine.
GRABER: We said that people in the region used to fatten up their livestock on chestnuts, and these hybrid chestnuts are great for that, too.
KIM BRYANT: Our son raises pigs for his FFA group—
GRABER: FFA stands for future farmers of America.
KIM BRYANT: —And then with his cousin, they’re not on our property, but they’re on another property and they finish them off on chestnuts. And the meat is very good. It’s very delicious.
TWILLEY: Honestly, if you’re going to grow food for livestock, chestnuts are probably a better bet than corn. Kim and David don’t have to irrigate, they barely have to fertilize and spray, and we’re talking about trees, which stay in the ground, locking in carbon, rather than an annual crop.
GRABER: And when you’re in the mountains, on hilly land, a tree crop like this is kind of perfect. It’s hard to imagine something better.
TWILLEY: And then, even though an orchard of hybrid chestnuts like this doesn’t seem like a step on the way to a forest full of restored American chestnuts—well, it kind of is, in a roundabout way. It’s about making them familiar again. David told us sure, *some* people remember the American chestnut.
DAVID BRYANT: There are plenty of folks that say, Hey, my grandparents had a chestnut tree on their farm or whatever, and I used to pick them up, or we used to throw them at each other, or, you know, something along those lines.
GRABER: But there aren’t a lot of these people around. David and Kim thought they would be most of their customers, but frankly most Americans have forgotten about chestnuts by now.
DAVID BRYANT: One of the most interesting things about the whole chestnut… venture, has been, we really didn’t know who our customer was going to be. We thought we knew. Again, we were wrong. We thought it was going to be, you know, people who want, who were excited about getting chestnuts reintroduced into their diet and palates and meals and restaurants. And we really thought that’s who the customer’s going to be.
TWILLEY: But no. It turns out, the average American doesn’t know what they’re missing. Their grandparents, probably their great grandparents at this point—they would have known and loved chestnuts, but these days? You might encounter a chestnut in some Thanksgiving stuffing, if at all?
DAVID BRYANT: It’s really the Asian community who are our customers. It really is. It’s already part of their palate, it’s already part of their culture.
GRABER: Asians and Eastern Europeans. David and Kim set up a new pick-your-own this year, and groups drive in from hours away and fill up like five gallon buckets with chestnuts.
TWILLEY: But Kim and David are also trying to win over a new generation of American chestnut lovers. They roast them at farmers’ markets and offer tastes, and people seem to love them. Kim says people will try one and then buy a pound.
GRABER: And even though they say they’ve had to educate people who live nearby about how great chestnuts are, there’s still plenty of demand. They say they sell out. And so they’ve convinced friends to start growing chestnut trees, too.
DAVID BRYANT: There are a few, friends of ours, well, former friends now that we convinced them to do chestnuts. But yeah, there are a few, there’s like five or six now in Nelson County.
TWILLEY: But there are still not nearly enough American-grown chestnuts that you could find them in the grocery store. Or even at restaurants. Although it’s not that the interest isn’t there.
DAVID BRYANT: Especially restaurants are saying, hey, we would love to incorporate chestnuts into our dishes and whatnot. But I have no labor. You’ve got to bring me product that’s ready to go into the dish where I could just literally slice the bag and drop it in. You can’t bring me nuts like this because I don’t have people, We don’t have time.
GRABER: I know from experience that it does take a bit of time and energy and arm strength to quarter chestnuts and cook them in boiling water so that the nuts pop out of their shell. Or even to score their shell and then roast them. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to do it every day either.
TWILLEY: In countries where chestnuts are still regularly on the menu, like England, you can buy them shelled and boiled, in ready-to-use vacuum packs on supermarket shelves. Dinner in minutes.
GRABER: So the Bryants have ordered a peeling machine from Italy to try to address this problem and get peeled nuts into the hands of even more Americans. It’s on its way!
TWILLEY: But David and Kim think that the real opportunity is in chestnut products. And they had laid on a spread to convince us.
LAUREN EVOY DAVIS: Yeah. So we’ve made some mushroom risotto, mushroom and chestnut risotto. And we have some ice cream to try. And then Kim made bread yesterday. Yeah. It’s based on a banana bread recipe minus the bananas.
GRABER: Lauren is Kim’s sister and she’s also part of the family business. She took out some chestnuts that they’d boiled so that we could try them straight.
[NUTS TUMBLING INTO A BASIN]
EVOY DAVIS: We’re going to microwave these to warm them up.
TWILLEY: Once they were warm, we dived in. And we could not stop eating these, just plain. They were a little crumbly but also creamy and nutty like a really good boiled potato but then they were sweet too.
TWILLEY: These taste better than the vacuum-packed kind, I’ll be honest.
DAVID BRYANT: Is that right?
TWILLEY: These are better.
DAVID BRYANT: You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: The chestnut version of banana bread was delicious. And then Lauren pulled out her show stopper—
EVOY DAVIS: So, do you want to try some ice cream?
GRABER: Yeah, of course.
EVOY DAVIS: Okay, so this is an actual recipe for chestnut ice cream. Imagine… what would we compare it to? Butter pecan?
GRABER: Like, if you didn’t know it was chestnut… You would think there was something awesome going on, but you might not be able to put your finger on it, right. You know? It has that sort of like pistachio, light pistachio-y kind of, but light.
TWILLEY: It’s almost like, like that almond-y kind of… Yeah. I really like it.
GRABER: It’s great.
TWILLEY: I can exclusively reveal that Cynthia went back for seconds. And then we still had to make room for a chestnut and mushroom risotto.
GRABER: I thought that particular pairing was so delicious that I took some chestnuts home with me, boiled them up, and then made a recipe from the BBC that’s a sauce of chestnuts and mushrooms with seared scallops. I have to say, that plus red wine, in my household we thought we were basically in a restaurant. I’m a fan.
TWILLEY: This is Kim, David, and Lauren’s master plan—to get foodies and ideally food makers pumped about the chestnut again.
EVOY DAVIS: our goal is to get people excited about it from chefs to bakers to brewers. We did a collaboration with a brewery in Richmond one year, and so it’s sort of like, move over pumpkin spice!
GRABER: Pumpkin spice is old. That’s, that’s done.
DAVIS: Right. So we’re the new kid on the block.
TWILLEY: This is better than pumpkin spice. No contest.
GRABER: I’m totally with you.
TWILLEY: Yeah. Not even close.
GRABER: And this is why farms like the Bryants’ are important. Sure, they’re great from a number of environmental and food perspectives. But they’re also great because they reintroduce even the idea of eating local chestnuts back to Americans, they kind of highlight the possible. They can make us all fall in love with chestnuts again.
TWILLEY: And that can only help with the larger, longer project of restoring this lost American tree to the forests of the East. We may have a while to wait before we can go out on chestnut frolics again, but at least we can add a delicious, sustainable and healthy food back to our diets in the meantime.
GRABER: By the way, Kim and David’s trees are orchard trees, not forest trees. David said some people told him they plant these trees out in the forest, but they won’t grow tall enough to get enough light to produce lots of nuts. Don’t do that. But do buy these trees if you have a full-light spot in your yard and you want some chestnuts for yourself and the local wildlife!
TWILLEY: And if you are yard-free, but want to eat American-grown chestnuts, you can order them—David and Kim ship them all over the country.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Kim and David Bryant and to Lauren, and also to Don Davis, we have links to their farms and books and more on our website, gastropod.com. Thanks also to our superstar producer Claudia Geib for all her help this episode.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with the perfect side dish for your Thanksgiving celebration. ‘Til then!