In 1944, vocalist Mel Tormé and songwriter Bob Wells co-wrote what may be the most performed holiday song of all time, “The Christmas Song,” more widely recognized by its opening line, “Chestnuts roasting*** on an open fire.” Two years later, Nat King Cole recorded it and a classic was born.
This is appropriate as the Chestnut tree itself is something of an American classic. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, the species was once ubiquitous in our nation’s landscape. At its zenith, over 200 million acres were covered with the tree. In a range extending from Maine to Florida and West to the Ohio Valley, the Chestnut once comprised one quarter of the total U.S. hardwood population.
It was an important staple in agriculture, both for human and livestock consumption. Its lumber is straight-grained, easy to work, lightweight and resistant to rot. As the ACF suggests, the wood is ideal for furniture and fine musical instruments.
On a more personal note, Chestnut Street runs along the east side of my home in downtown Pine Bluff. The only trees on that side of the house are an ancient oak, a pecan and a gingko. Further, I imagine there’s not a Chestnut growing anywhere along the entire length of the road. This paucity of eponymous flora comes in part as the result of a great die-off of Chestnut trees.
At the turn of the 20th century, imports of Asian Chestnut trees dealt a death blow to the domestic Chestnut population. Acre after acre of American Chestnuts succumbed to a blight imported on the Asian species. As the ACF reports, “The blight… (Cryphonectria parasitica) is a fungus dispersed via spores in the air, raindrops or animals. It is a wound pathogen, entering through a fresh injury in the tree’s bark. It spreads into the bark and underlying vascular cambium and wood, killing these tissues as it advances. The flow of nutrients is eventually choked off to and from sections of the tree above the infection, killing them.”
American Chestnuts went from ubiquity to near extinction. One need not search too hard to find a deeper economic metaphor in that tale.
Global finances aside, with the loss of the Chestnut tree we fundamentally altered the American landscape. We did so in ignorance, imprudence and in the name of financial expediency. Gone with the tree was one more thing that made us who we are.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. A number of intrepid scientists and growers have labored to bring back the once important species. To do so, they’ve employed a technique called backcross breeding. As the ACF states, “(the backcross) breeding program took Chinese chestnut trees, naturally resistant to the blight, and crossed them with their American cousins, resulting in trees that were 50 percent American, 50 percent Chinese. These trees were then backcrossed to the American species, resulting in trees which were 75 percent American. The procedure was repeated to produce an American chestnut tree that retains no Chinese characteristics other than blight resistance.”
In an interview with National Public Radio, Michigan State University plant pathologist David Fulbright described other successful reintroduction programs. In particular, he noted a European/Japanese hybrid called “Colossal,” grown in Michigan as well as the prevalence of Chinese chestnuts grown in Missouri.
Fulbright also spoke to the rising interest in the Chestnut’s popularity, “It’s low in fat; it’s gluten free. People discovered that it’s probably one of the best foods on the planet – from the Roman legion to resistance fighters in Europe during WWII.”
While Chestnuts probably don’t figure heavily into most American Christmas celebrations these days, they have a special place in the Pate family’s holiday reminiscences. A few years back, my dad thought it would be fun to roast some Chestnuts on an open fire. He got a bag full of nuts and the special roasting pan. He built a big fire in the fireplace and called Currier and Ives so they could etch the moment into history. A few minutes later, the rest of us debated calling the fire department. At this point it is good to note that Tormé and Wells’ lyric says nothing about Chestnuts vulcanized in the living room. Sorry, Pop.
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*** This article has been updated to correct an error in the song lyrics.