For generations, American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) fed people and wildlife throughout eastern North America. Up to 4 billion chestnut trees populated woodlands from southern Maine to northern Florida, and west to the Mississippi River.

These “Redwoods of the East Coast” filled the forest canopy, towering up to 100 feet with a girth of 9 feet around. They were an essential keystone species in the ecosystem of the entire eastern U.S. In many areas, one of every four trees was a chestnut.

American chestnuts fed birds, mammals and people. Millions of animals relied on the nuts as a highly nutritious food source. Railroad cars full of chestnuts supplied cities with nuts to roast over an open fire during the year-end holiday season. Chestnut trees were turned into railroad ties and telegraph poles by the hundreds of thousands. The clear, straight-grained, rot-resistant wood was used for construction, furniture, kitchen bowls, even coffins. Hundreds of millions of chestnut board feet were milled each year. The fast-growing trees were also planted for shade in urban areas. The American chestnut became known as the “cradle-to-grave” tree for its wide variety of uses and benefits. It was considered the perfect tree.

Then at the turn of the 20th century came a perfect disaster, a fungal blight caused one of the most tragic ecological disasters of recent centuries. It spread quickly, killing entire forests of American chestnuts. Panic ensued. Commissions were formed. Boy Scouts were organized to track down infected trees. Farmers were pressed to chop down sick chestnuts at the first sign of blight. The heroic effort was not enough. Nearly every wild American chestnut succumbed. Before long, American chestnut trees across some 300,000 square miles were gone. The economic loss was estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, wild American chestnuts are functionally extinct. Scientists have been working to perfect genetically modified varieties that are resistant to the blight. Some are crossing resistant Chinese and Japanese chestnuts with vulnerable American chestnuts. Others are inoculating trees or using DNA sequencing to ensure trees that may be introduced into the wild are resistant. Backcrossing transgenics and introducing the modified trees into wild woods has both strong supporters and opponents. Restoring American chestnuts is so important that even some conservation groups, such as the Sierra Club, are cautiously supportive of the genetic engineering effort.

However, there is an alternative to planting GMO trees. A few surviving pure American chestnuts have been found in the wild. The Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation and the Viles Arboretum in Augusta are making available seedlings grown from seeds sourced from trees that are hardy and well suited for Maine’s climate conditions. The Brunswick Town Commons Committee and the Brunswick Parks and Recreation Department have acquired several. Recently, volunteers planted 20 chestnut seedlings in the Brunswick Town Commons as part of an ongoing restoration project.

In the late 20th century, Louis J. Lipovsky, an entomologist of national prominence who lived in Brunswick, planted a number of American chestnuts in the Town Commons. Some of the trees he planted have succumbed to the blight, but a number are hanging on and are still producing nuts. There is hope the survivors can be restored. The goal of recovering those remaining trees, along with the planting of new seedlings, is biodiversity restoration. It is part of a grand, long-term effort to bring American chestnuts back from the brink of extinction.

Jym St. Pierre is a member of the Brunswick Town Commons Committee. Dennis Wilson is the Brunswick town arborist.

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