Nearly extinct American chestnut – a vision from America’s past – at UW Arboretum

July 15, 2022

I lagged behind our fast-talking and even faster-walking tour guide at the UW Arboretum, a stop on the Madison Garden Bloggers Fling, catching up with a friend as my fellow bloggers hotfooted it. Time was short, and the guide was staring at the remarkable tree. During a pause he looked at his watch and then turned quickly to tell us that he had something special to show us, a tree that he had seen blooming earlier in the day.

It was an American chestnut. Chestnut toothed. As we gathered around, my eyes darted up to it in wonder. The American chestnut, once king of the great eastern forests, is now virtually extinct, wiped out by blight 100 years ago. A poetic and heart-wrenching description of the happy days and fall of Buk Baluchar in the fantastic novel Overstory My heart was pierced when I read it. And now here I was, looking at a survivor.

Why did the blight kill this tree? (Not yet, one might add.)


This tree grows far from the American chestnut’s original range, where blight spores linger and eventually infect seedlings that still emerge from old, injured tree stumps. Birds and pollinators can also carry blight spores long distances. But so far this lonely chest has remained safe. It is not as large as a mature chestnut, but it is a good sized tree. I hope it continues to avoid misfortune.

Our guide told us that male catkins, which hang like ivory-yellow tassels between toothy leaves, light up a chestnut from above—like floral fireworks. Imagine an entire forest of these pale flowers swaying in the breeze. It’s a vision that no longer exists apart from the story of America’s past.

I noticed spiky burrs on the ground under the canopy and picked one up. It poked my careless fingers. It is the remnant of a female flower, which appears on the same plant as the male catkin. If pollination occurs—which requires cross-pollination with another chestnut tree—two or three nuts are produced inside the protective pods of the female flowers. Sharp thorns protect the nuts until they are ripe, at which point the bors split and fall from the tree, revealing the edible bounty inside.

I can’t remember if our guide told us if this tree ever produced nuts — if there was another lone American chestnut close enough for pollinators to find both. But this one, at least, flowers every June, hope.

Maybe there’s another American chestnut somewhere, far enough away from a blight zone, or it’s resistant…

…also looking for love.

Next: Conifers, a water pond and a sunny crack garden at the Allen Centennial Garden. For a look back at Linda Grose’s prairie garden for wildlife, click here.

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All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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