Restoring the American Chestnut Tree and Long-Lost Holiday Traditions

Few Americans today can claim to have gone chestnut hunting1 or to have roasted chestnuts "on an open fire" as the familiar holiday song goes.  Why have these traditions all but disappeared in the last half-century?  A New York Times headline that ran in 1908 tells part of the story:

  • "Chestnut Trees Face Destruction - Trees Worth Millions Dying in This State from a Canker for Which There Is No Remedy"2

Devastation of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) in New York City signified the beginning of a near complete eradication of the species - more than 4 billion trees in 50 years - from eastern forests of the United States.3  The "canker", or blight, that killed so many American chestnut trees was caused by Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus likely introduced in North America with the import of blight-resistant Asian chestnut trees.

More than 100 years since the first recorded infection, Cryphonectria parasitica continues, unabated, to infect and kill remaining American chestnut trees and their saplings.3  However, a method to enhance the ability of the American chestnut tree to resist fungal infection was recently described in an article referenced in the CAS databases:

Cryphonectria parasitica is pathogenic in trees, in part, because it produces toxic levels of oxalic acid (CAS Registry Number(R) 144-62-7).  If oxalate oxidase, an enzyme that degrades oxalic acid, can be expressed in transgenic American chestnut trees, it may enhance resistance to fungal infection.  This research represents one of several important strategies in ongoing efforts to restore the American chestnut tree to North American forests.4

You can use SciFinder or STN to search the CAS databases for additional information about Castanea dentata, Cryphonectria parasitica, oxalate oxidase, and oxalic acid.  If your organization is enabled to use the web version of SciFinder, you can directly access details for the substances and references listed in this article.

Contributed by
Peter S. Carlton, Ph.D.
CAS Communications

  1. Chestnut Hunts in the Bronx. The New York Times, Oct 12, 1902.
  2. Chestnut Trees Face Destruction. The New York Times, May 21, 1908.
  3. The American Chestnut Foundation. (accessed Dec 11, 2008).
  4. American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation. (accessed Dec 11, 2008).

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