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American Chestnut Trees in Longmeadow

Perhaps you have noticed one or two information kiosks which recently sprouted in Bliss and Laurel Parks? These kiosks mark two of Longmeadow’s long-term survivors of the chestnut blight. The trees are not impressive to look at, but are amazing for the story of resilience they tell.

First, we need to be clear that this article is about the native American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, which bears edible nuts, not the more frequently recognized Common Horsechestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum which was introduced from Europe and bears poisonous nuts.  Although the two trees bear similar burred nuts, they are not closely related and their leaves are quite different.  Horsechestnut leaves are compound with seven leaflets radiating out from each petiole or stem, while American chestnut leaves are single and sharply toothed.  Horsechestnut burrs contain a single large nut, while American chestnut burrs contain three smaller nuts.

American Chestnut Nuts with Burrs and Leaves

Photo by Timothy Van Vliet, 2004 via Wikipedia

American chestnuts were a keystone species along the Appalachian range, providing an important source of nutrition for wildlife and humans.  Unfortunately, a blight caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica was brought to North America on Japanese chestnut trees, Castanea crenata, sometime in the late 1800’s. Although we do not know exactly when and where the first American chestnut trees became infected, we do know that Hermann Merkel, the chief forester of the Bronx Zoo, identified the disease on mature chestnut trees in the zoo in 1904. Over the next few decades, billions of chestnut trees were lost from eastern woodlands.  Early in the blight epidemic, many dead and dying trees were harvested for their still marketable lumber. Because the blight only affects the above ground portions of the tree, the remaining stumps and root collars resprout new growth. These new shoots grow for years and sometimes decades, before they too succumb to the blight. It is rare for the new shoots to live long enough to bear nuts, and so the species is considered “functionally extinct.” This leads us to the rather exciting conclusion that the few remaining specimens growing in Longmeadow are quite old organisms, in spite of their small stature. They have likely been growing and dying back to their roots in the same location for over 100 years!

We know that chestnut trees have long been present in Longmeadow, as documented by these photographs in the Paesiello Emerson collection at the Longmeadow Historical Society.

Chestnut trees, Depot Road (Emerson Street), 1910

Longmeadow Historical Society Emerson Collection

Chestnut tree in blossom, Page's Lot, 1918

Longmeadow Historical Society Emerson Collection

Unlike Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees which were selected over centuries and domesticated into small, easy to harvest orchard trees, American chestnuts grow straight and tall and were an important source of lumber.

Local trees including chestnuts were harvested and cut into beams and planks and incorporated into local structures. Chestnut wood is strong and decay resistant and easy to work. The grain is reminiscent of oak, but the wood is lighter in weight.  During demolition of the last known milking shed in Longmeadow on Williams Street in 2023, some chestnut beams were identified and preserved for reuse. If you visit one of the information kiosks in Bliss and Laurel Parks, you can see a chestnut wood sample and some nuts embedded in resin.

Prior to the industrial revolution, trees were cut and shaped into beams and planks by hand with saws, adzes, planes and other hand tools. In the early 1800’s water power was harnessed to process trees into lumber. One early Longmeadow water-powered sawmill is documented on this map from 1831. The mills were located on the Longmeadow Brook near the intersection of Shaker Road and Mill Road. The eastern end of Mill Road was abandoned by the town in 2001.

This detail from the 1855 map shows the same mills, now accompanied by a dam and pond slightly upstream. Perhaps you recognize the pond which is now on the property of the Longmeadow Country Club?

This image from the 1894 map shows the millrace which carried water from the pond to the mills and then back to the Longmeadow Brook. Note that the sawmill had been converted to a knitting mill by 1894.

Perhaps the townspeople found it more efficient to mill their lumber where the trees were harvested with a steam powered sawmill? This photograph shows workmen processing trees into lumber with a steam powered sawmill.

Spring is upon us, so soon you will be able to identify one or more of Longmeadow’s few remaining American chestnut trees by their characteristic leaves. While doing so, take a moment to reflect on the incredible fact that these ancient survivors continue to struggle against the fungus unwittingly introduced along with exotic trees more than 100 years ago.

-Contributed by Dave Marinelli, Longmeadow Historical Society

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