New Appalachian Moments Blog Post by Scott Ballard
Time to branch out and learn more about the rise and fall of two foundational species of trees in the Appalachians…Chestnuts and Hemlocks.
Because it’s been so long ago, it’s hard to imagine the impact of the loss of the native chestnut tree. These trees grew absolutely huge! They often had a diameter of more than 10 feet and grew to heights of well over 100 feet. They covered 25 percent of the entire hardwood forest…go ahead, take out one of every four trees and imagine what the 200 million acres of landscape would look like! Yet that is exactly what happened.
The American chestnut was the most important food source for a wide variety of wildlife from bears to birds. Rural communities depended upon the annual nut harvest as a cash crop and to feed livestock. The chestnut lumber industry was a major sector of Appalachian economies. Chestnut wood is straight-grained and easily worked, lightweight and highly rot-resistant, perfect for fence posts, railroad ties, barn beams and home construction.
The discovery of the blight fungus on some Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island was made public in 1904. Within 40 years, spread by wind, rain and birds, the near-four billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated by the fungus.
Ironically, the loss of one foundational species may have facilitated the growth and expansion of another, the Hemlock, which in turn, is now severely threatened…and so we are witnessing what our great grandparents witnessed in the 1920s.
Hemlock trees, called the redwood of the East, can grow over 150 feet tall and live for 500 years. Hemlocks play a vital role in cooling mountain streams and providing habitat for many other species. Unfortunately, they are currently under attack from a non-native insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid.
In 1911, a lady named Sallie Dooley established an Oriental Garden in Richmond, Virginia. In later years the garden became neglected and a Virginia entomologist discovered a strange bug eating away at Hemlock trees. It was considered a curiosity but as it turns out the scientists couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
When you see a white, waxy covering at the base of Hemlock needles, you’ve witnessed the tree’s demise. It seems odd that these massive trees could be brought down by something only three millimeters long, but it’s true.
Like the chestnut blight, the Woolly Adelgid is also from Asia with no known predators. Further bad news was that, because it’s so small, a good gust of wind carries it to the next Hemlock and thus continues the long slow descent of the Eastern Hemlock that we are witness to today. If you’re a tree hugger, go find a Hemlock…and hurry…speaking of here I am hugging a 270-year old Poplar at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate!
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