Billions of American chestnut trees once populated North America’s eastern forests, and until the late 1800s, one in every four hardwood trees in those woods was an American chestnut.

Reaching nearly 100 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter, centuries-old photos of the massive trees show people dwarfed by their size. The trees provided homes for various mammals, birds and insects, and people relied on them for food and building materials — until the American chestnut was virtually wiped out by disease.

historic photo of American chestnut treeA family stands around an American chestnut tree in Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of American Chestnut Foundation)

In 1876, Japanese chestnut trees were imported to America, and they brought along a pathogenic fungus known as Cryphonectria parasitica. The Japanese trees were resistant to C. parasitica — which kills chestnut trees by cutting off their water and nutrient supply — but their American counterparts were highly susceptible to it.

The chestnut blight was first spotted in American in 1904, and within 50 years, C. parasitica had killed nearly 4 billion American chestnuts. Today, only a few hundred remain.

But that’s about to change.

Since the 1980s, scientists have been working to restore the tree to its native range, and the American Chestnut Foundation is leading the effort.

By selectively breeding the American Chestnut with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut, researchers have created a tree that’s genetically similar to the American chestnut but able to withstand C. parasitica. The tree is fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut and one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut.

“This is much more than just a tree. This is a miracle,” said tree farmer and Rolling Stones keyboardist, Chuck Leavell, who is featured in the new PSA promoting the foundation's work. “Through the great work of the American Chestnut Foundation and other researchers, this [tree] is coming back.”

To learn more about the foundation and how you can help restore this threatened tree, visit the American Chestnut Foundation’s website.

Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

Bringing back the American chestnut
Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones is helping raise awareness about the once-common tree that scientists are working to restore. (And you can help too.)