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Dad and the chestnut trees February 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in memoir, nature, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , ,

Edward W. Bennett, 1950

I was going through my file cabinet the other day and discovered a folder labelled simply “Dad.” It turned out to contain an odd assortment of photos, copies of old letters, and even some ancient tax returns. Near the top I found copies of correspondence between Dad and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The subject: chestnut trees.

He had apparently heard of a project at the Botanic Garden to locate stands of healthy mature chestnuts. As it happened, he and my mother had recently come upon a group of chestnuts on one of their walks in northern Virginia. As I look at the letter and reread it now, I experience the powerful confluence of two things: the subject of the trees, and the personality of my father.

Dad and Mom on a walk, 1966

Dad was always a very modest and soft-spoken person, and he seemed to become more, rather than less, uncomfortable in social situations as he got older. If you had forced him to chat with a stranger for an hour or two about things of no personal interest, that might have been his idea of hell. I sympathize with that feeling.

But Dad was a beautiful writer, and he came into his own in his correspondence. I can picture him sitting down comfortably to his typewriter and working out the turns of his sentences. His grammar was perfect, his style formal without being stilted. He could get away with using words like “aforementioned” and phrases like “Could you kindly inform me.” He loved to communicate via the written word.

His letter to the Botanic Garden, dated Dec. 1, 1971, begins: “Dear Sirs: I have heard that you are interested in learning of surviving mature specimens of chestnut trees, and are attempting to find a blight-resistant strain. My wife and I have come upon a group of trees not far from here which seem to be mature chestnuts and, on the whole, healthy. The oldest, with a girth of 68″, is shown in photos 1, 2, 3… ” And he goes on to discuss what is shown in a series of seven enclosed photos.

Being the person that he was, he doesn’t assume that he has correctly identified the trees as American chestnuts—perhaps they are hybrids or members of  “some other branch of the chestnut family, such as the European, Chinese, or Japanese chestnut.” He concludes his letter, “If they should in fact be American chestnuts, they would seem to merit scientific attention. And indeed, in that case the attention had best be given fairly soon, as vacant lots in this area are being built on rather rapidly, with a general bulldozing usually the first step. Yours sincerely, Edward W. Bennett.”


Photo taken about the time the letter was written

Two weeks later, a response came from the Botanic Garden. “Dear Mr. Bennett: One of the unfortunate things about the American chestnut at this time is that some trees will produce large burrs that have the normal outward appearance and size but which when examined as to nuts, show aborted nuts. I am enclosing the two nut samples you sent which indicate that the tree that they came from is diseased…. Despite very extensive efforts, the chance of any American chestnut growing perfectly in the Eastern or Central U.S. has reached the vanishing point practically. Extensive work is being done on hybrids… Yours truly, George Kalmbacher, Taxonomist.”

The response may have been disappointing, but that would have been softened by the fact that Mr. Kalmbacher at the Botanic Garden had taken the time to carefully examine the samples my father had sent, and that the polite, full-page, neatly typed response conveyed the news about ongoing work with hybrids.

My father would have been heartened if he could have known about persistent efforts to develop a blight-resistant hybrid. In the Smokies, there is a breeding program that involves taking flowering American chestnut sprouts and grafting them onto blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts and hybrids. The offspring are then back-crossed with the Chinese chestnut.

And there are some fairly large chestnuts in the Smokies. This link shows a beautiful chestnut in the Tremont area that is going to be used for pollinating purposes (thanks, Adam Beal, for sharing the link).

But most of the time, the chestnuts you see look more like this:


Typical small chestnut

I always enjoy looking out for chestnuts. Two friends recently found one on the Cat Stairs that was 15-20′ high, healthy in appearance, about 3″ in diameter, with at least 15 burrs. Hearing about that set me to looking for chestnuts on my recent Rainbow Falls/Bullhead hike, and I saw several in the 3200-3700-foot elevation section of the Bullhead trail.

And I always think of Dad when I see one.

Chestnut in the Smokies, turn of the century.



1. Peter Bennett - February 5, 2011

Thank you for another insightful piece about our parents. You have carried on with the history of skillful writing that Dad exhibited in his lifetime.

2. Thomas Stazyk - February 5, 2011

Very nice memoir!

3. Jenny - February 5, 2011

Thank you, Peter. You can probably appreciate this better than anyone else.

4. brian - February 7, 2011

Jenny, sounds like you were blessed in your parents. I think a love of nature is something that is passed down far more often than it is spontaneously generated. I will always be grateful to my father for taking me on walks in the woods and teaching me to admire the old trees we passed. It sounds like they are very close now to doing mass plantings of 95% American Elms with Chinese blight resistance. I hope to plant a few someday.

So whatever happened to the chestnuts your father wrote about? Did they turn out to be pure American Chestnuts and were they cleared for development?

Jenny - February 7, 2011

Brian, they were American chestnuts, but sadly they were cleared for development. They were located in an area that was subject to intensive development, an area that transitioned from rural to suburban within a few years. However, fortunately, a large tract nearby is within the boundaries of Great Falls National Park on the Potomac.

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