American Chestnut by Susan Freinkel: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree

by DerdriuMarriner

American Chestnut by Susan Freinkel traces the cultural, political, and scientific events which describe the life, death, and rebirth of a perfect tree.

American chestnuts historically guarantee human and wildlife sustainability

American Chestnut acts as both introduction and review for amateur, expert, and newbie enthusiasts regarding the life, death, and rebirth of a perfect tree. It brings to twenty-first century audiences the life cycle and natural history of a woody plant whose generous form and function make it a top candidate throughout all places and times for recognition as the world’s perfect tree. It likewise considers tragic reversals from decisions flawed by twentieth-century limits on scientific advances and technological breakthroughs.

Author of the subsequent Plastic: A Toxic Love Story in 2011, freelance science journalist Susan Freinkel therefore divides her 2008 National Outdoor Book Award-honored publication into three timelines regarding American chestnuts before, during, and subsequent to blight-caused ravages.




New World avian native Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) favored chestnuts in their diet and sheltered in American Chestnuts:

Martha, last-known passenger pigeon, died at Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1, 1914; her taxidermied body currently is on display through September 2015 via Once There Were Billions exhibit at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC
National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC

American chestnuts historically house bluebirds and passenger pigeons


Chestnut tree enthusiasts historically expect to find their favorite woody plant (Castanea dentata) growing sturdily alongside oaks (Quercus spp). Both trees flourish as air-purifiers, soil-strengtheners, and water-stabilizers in:

  • releasing photosynthetic oxygen in wooded atmospheres;
  • replenishing alkaloid- and amino acid-facilitating tannins in wooded soils and waters; and
  • restoring filtered-light balances by shooting for the sky whenever forest and woodland canopies open or thin.

And yet biological ironies give the two ancient arboreal and sylvan genera, so alike in Shakespearean dignity (paraphrasing Romeo and Juliet, Prologue, line 1), unlike roles in food chain and web interactions with Cryphonectria parasitica.

American chestnuts and chinquapins (Castanea pumila) have no resistance whereas oaks serve as unsusceptible carriers of the above-mentioned devastating fungus. 


The altitude-specific range of the American Chestnut reveals the New World native's affinity for the Appalachian Mountains of eastern North America.

Elbert L. Little Jr., Atlas of United States trees, volume 4 (1977)
Elbert L. Little Jr., Atlas of United States trees, volume 4 (1977)

American chestnuts implore savvy decision-making, environment-monitoring, and record-keeping


It is unfortunate that the nineteenth century’s related tragedy left nature-lovers unalerted to the twentieth century’s tragic possibilities. Highland and lowland locations historically join to sustain altitude-specific American chestnut populations in:

  • Alabama, Arkansas;
  • Connecticut;
  • Delaware;
  • Georgia;
  • Illinois, Indiana;
  • Kentucky;
  • Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri;
  • New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina;
  • Ohio, Ontario;
  • Pennsylvania;
  • Rhode Island;
  • South Carolina;
  • Tennessee;
  • Vermont, Virginia; and
  • West Virginia.

They knit the reactions of two of the United States of America’s greatest ecology-minded presidents, with Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) bemoaning the highland chestnut’s mass-extinction by ink disease (Phytophthora cinnamomi) and Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919) deploring the lowland chestnut’s near-extinction by fungus-inflicted blight. 


1943 photo of dead American Chestnut ~ cause of death: chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica)

dead American Chestnut
dead American Chestnut

American chestnuts journey between impending extinction and sustainability


More than a century after the blight’s introduction through the New York Zoological Garden’s (now the Bronx Zoo) Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata) imports of 1904, updates frequently mention American chestnuts as rarities from:

  • crossing American and Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) to backcross three generations with American chestnuts and intercross two, per Charles Burnham (January 13, 1904 - April 19, 1995);
  • crossing hypovirulent American chestnuts, per Gary Griffin and Fred Hebard; and
  • surviving blight as short-lived, under-sized sprouts.

Their vigilance nevertheless nudges American chestnuts toward sustainability through committed educational, financial, and scientific activism.

Europe’s experience from the 1930s onward offers additional hope in France’s, Italy’s, and Portugal’s chestnut (Castanea sativa) survival through anti-blight, virus-induced immunity known as hypovirulence. 


American Chestnuts were treasured both as backdrops and as mainstays for social activities from colonial times through the 19th century ~

"Gathering Chestnuts": engraving of scene at Philadelphia's Fairmount Park by James W. Lauderbach
Art Journal, New Series, Vol. 4 (1878), p. 2
Art Journal, New Series, Vol. 4 (1878), p. 2



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


26th US President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt chops a fallen tree at Sagamore (Algonquin: "Chieftain") Hill, his beloved estate which served as Summer White House during his presidency (September 14, 1901 – March 4, 1909):

In 1910, after leaving the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt dropped his captivating, ebullient demeanor as he sadly chopped American Chestnuts stricken by the blight at Sagamore.
Sagamore Hill, Cove Neck, North Shore of Long Island, New York
Sagamore Hill, Cove Neck, North Shore of Long Island, New York

Sources Consulted


Freinkel, Susan. 2008. American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Berkley, CA, U.S.A.; Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A.; and London, England, U.K.: University of California Press. 


Beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807–March 24, 1882) immortalized American Chestnut's iconic role in US cultural history via opening lines of The Village Blacksmith (1840): "Under a spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands":

1840 sketch by H.W. Longfellow of the American Chestnut on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he memorialized in his poem; when the tree was cut down, the poet was gifted with a chair made from its wood.
Longfellow's Life and Legacy by NPS Longfellow National Historic Site, p. 22
Longfellow's Life and Legacy by NPS Longfellow National Historic Site, p. 22
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel ~ Available now via Amazon

The American chestnut once enjoyed homelands ranging from Maine to Georgia, but in the early 20th century close to 4 billion trees were felled by a blight and the perfect tree became rarefied in its familiar landscapes. The fight to save continues.
American Chestnut

American Chestnut Tree at the Maxwell Arboretum, Lincoln, Nebraska: photo by Joel Sartore

Learning in childhood about the very last passenger pigeon sparked the interest of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore (born June 16, 1962) in nature, especially endangered species.
American Chestnut Tree at the Maxwell Arboretum

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 07/01/2015, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 07/06/2015

candy47, It must have been one of the chestnuts that Virginia Tech Professor Gary Griffin predicted would outlive the blight, which affected trees in record time! Do you have any pictures or is this just a beautifully fond memory that you're one of the lucky ones to have? It's fun to reminisce about chestnuts -- ;-] -- over tea!

candy47 on 07/03/2015

There was a beautiful chestnut tree in front of our house in the 1950's. The tree has been gone a long time now. Thanks for the morning read with my tea!

You might also like

Eastern Redbud: Spring's Early Pleasing Pastel of Magenta Pink

New World native Eastern redbud is one of the first trees to flower in spring.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida): Spring's Early Pink, Red, ...

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), a New World native flowering tree, glorio...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...