American Chestnut: Resurrecting A Forest Giant

The American Chestnut towered in forests, then disappeared. Now, it’s staging a comeback.

three bulbous spiky open brown pods revealing nuts inside attached to a leafy tree branch. two other closed versions of those pods are off on the side
The American Chestnut. Credit: The American Chestnut Foundation

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At the turn  of the 20th century, the American chestnut towered over other trees in Eastern  forests. The trees would grow as much as 100 feet high, and 13 feet wide. According to legend, a squirrel could scamper from New England to Georgia on the canopies of American chestnuts, never touching the ground.

And then, the trees began to disappear, succumbing to a mysterious fungus. The fungus first appeared in New York City in 1904—and  then it spread. By the 1950s, the fungus had wiped out billions of trees, and effectively finished off the American chestnut.

Now, some people are trying to resurrect the American chestnut—and soon. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.


Guests:

Sara Fitzsimmons is Director of Restoration, North Central Regional Science Coordinator, and Regional Science Coordinator Supervisor at the American Chestnut Foundation. 

Susan Freinkel is the author of American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree.

​​Neil Patterson Jr. works at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY, and is a member of the Tuscarora Nation. 

Bart Chezar is a chestnut enthusiast, and volunteers with the Prospect Park Alliance.

Footnotes & Further Reading:

Listen to oral histories from people who grew up with the American chestnut.

Credits:

This episode of Science Diction was produced by Shahla Farzan and Johanna Mayer. Elah Feder is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they sound designed this episode. Lauren J. Young contributed research, and Danya AbdelHameid fact checked the episode. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt.  

Meet the Writers

About Shahla Farzan

Shahla Farzan is a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis, Missouri.

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

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