Where have all the chestnuts gone?

Above, chestnut in “our” backyard during 2019 stay in Naples, Italy

Not only was baby’s crib likely made of chestnut, but chances were, so was the old man’s coffin.

George Hepting, “Death of the American Chestnut” via Forest Pathology

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….” It’s one of the first seasonal songs that pops into my head this time of year. But why have we latched onto a song that is rooted around a tree many of us have never seen in the United States?

A sizzling summer day is when these lyrics popped into the heads of Bob Wells (1922-1998) and Mel Torme (1924-1999). The first recording of it was made by Nat King Cole (1919-1965) in 1946, and it became a hit on both R&B and pop charts. The version most often heard today was recorded in 1961 with Cole backed by a full orchestra conducted by Nelson Riddle (1921-1985).

None of these talented men are with us now, but it is unlikely they were laid to rest in chestnut coffins. Most of the trees in the United States were long gone.

American chestnut trees were abundant when settlers arrived on the eastern shore:

The tree was treasured by early Americans for its sweet chestnuts, which could also be sold or bartered for items the farm families needed. The hardwood from chestnut trees were used to build everything from benches, and cradles, to pianos. Many barns and houses were built with it in the early days of America.

The chestnut was a canopy tree which soared up to 80-100 feet off the ground…. The American chestnut made up about 25 percent of eastern forests in the U.S.

Nathan M, “America’s Vanished Treasures: The American Chestnut Tree,” Owlcation
image from Forest Pathology

First observed killing chestnut trees in the New York Zoo in 1904, the deadly (for trees) Asian pathogen spread up to 50 miles per year. By 1940, approximately 9-million acres of chestnuts were wiped out of the forested landscape. So, by the time Nat King Cole began crooning about romantic roasting of chestnuts by the fire, it was on the final brink of extinction as a holiday tradition.

photograph by William A. Faust, Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

According to Forest Pathology:

“In many places, various oaks have replaced it. In dense oak stands, you can hardly find chestnut. But when the oaks are cut, fairly dense sprouts of chestnut pop up, trying to do their thing. But before they can get big enough to sexually reproduce, the damn disease cuts them down. They don’t seem to stand much chance of adapting.”

“American Chestnut Blight”

Another generation down the line might once again enjoy the smell of roasting chestnuts. The American Chestnut Foundation is partnering with the Forest Service to reintroduce blight resistant chestnuts in the nation’s forests.

So happy holidays. Hoping Nat and YouTube will allow me to share this carol with you.

Nat King Cole with Ralph Carmichael conducting orchestra, “The Christmas Song,”

2 thoughts on “Where have all the chestnuts gone?”

  1. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d never had roasted chestnuts until the winter I was 19 and in school in Denmark. I will never forget the street stalls selling roasted chestnuts and simmering Yule Gløgg along the Strøget (walking street) in Copenhagen — warming the body and mind of this California gal!

    Liked by 1 person

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