Return Of The Mighty Chestnut To The Georgia Mountains

Before blight wiped them out, huge American chestnut trees covered the slopes and ridges of the Georgia mountains, providing tons of food for wildlife—and people.

Herb McClure | March 31, 2023

This photo from the 1960s shows the decaying logs of giant mountain chestnut trees killed by blight decades before.

I became aware of chestnut trees early in my life. My grandpa, who was born in 1878, was the first to tell me about chestnuts. He said, “My family and I would harness the mules to bow-covered wagons and make a week-long journey to Fannin County in upper Georgia.” Fannin County was across the mountains from where they lived. “We took two or more wagons so all of the McClure clan could go and gather the chestnuts by the wagonloads,” he told me. “They were used for cooking and to feed livestock.”

The area where they went was known as “Chestnut Gap,” but today that same place is known as Higdon. My great grandpa was raised there until the Civil War. After the war, he moved to Forsyth County, and that was where I grew up. There was an old wooden rail fence that zigzagged across grandpa’s pasture, and he told it was made from chestnut trees.

In 1956, I was introduced to turkey hunting at Blue Ridge WMA in Fannin County by a good friend and mentor, Arthur Truelove. He was a great outdoorsman and introduced me to hunting in those rugged and high mountains. Arthur knew the names of every creek, gap and mountain. The Blue Ridge WMA was his favorite hunting area. He wanted me to learn about this special place and especially the wild turkeys living there. He told me how these wild turkeys were the original wild turkeys that had always lived there. He also said that they were saved from being killed out by a forest ranger named Arthur Woody. Woody allowed no hunting for over 10 years while he was stocking deer on the Blue Ridge WMA. When Georgia opened its first spring gobbler season in the Blue Ridge WMA in 1955, Arthur Truelove killed the first legal gobbler to be checked-out.

When I started my turkey hunting in 1956, I saw the remains of vast stands of dead trees. They were everywhere, and I was truly impressed with how large in size most of these dead trees were. Arthur informed me these big trees and logs were chestnut trees that had died some 30 to 40 years earlier from a deadly blight. He showed me many young chestnut sprouts that were still coming up from the roots of old trees.

“The blight never killed the chestnut roots,” he said, “just that portion of the trees above ground. Sadly, these sprouts will only live a few years before the blight kills them, too.”

I told Arthur about my grandpa and the chestnut stories he had told me when I was a boy. During my turkey hunting in these same mountains over the years I encountered many young chestnut sprouts that lived and grew for only a few years before the blight got them just like Arthur Truelove had said. Without realizing it at first, my passion for chestnut trees began to evolve after having crossed paths with so many of those new chestnut sprouts. They intrigued me, mainly because they were growing from roots that were still living, although the chestnut tree itself above ground had died.

I knew these trees had been dead for a long time because there was no bark left on any of the standing trees or fallen logs. They were all bare and very shiny if the sun was on them. In many of the places where I hunted the chestnut logs were so plentiful it was difficult just to walk through the woods. I had to zigzag around some of them because they were too large to crawl over. It amazed me that a tree that had died so long ago could still have living roots. Later on, I began to theorize that the sprouts above ground were living just long enough to keep the roots below the ground alive.

A Learning Process

During the 1970s and 80s I managed a popular sporting goods store in Gainesville. While working there I came in contact with several veteran turkey hunters who had hunted turkeys before the chestnut blight came to the north Georgia mountains. These men believed that when the chestnut trees began to die out, the wild turkeys in the mountains began to disappear, as well. One of the old timers who knew wild turkeys like the back of his hand told me, “When the chestnuts were gone, it hurt the turkey population much more than hunting them.”

Why were chestnut trees so important to the wild turkeys—and other wildlife—of the mountain region? After having become a little more knowledgeable about these important trees, I have formed a few personal opinions based on my experience.

Turkeys don’t eat certain foods because they taste good. They are inclined to eat whatever is available. Before the blight, chestnut trees could be counted on every year to produce nuts. In some places, it was estimated that one out of four trees in the Appalachian Mountains was a chestnut. This happened because unlike oak trees, chestnut trees pollinated two months later than the acorn trees. Chestnuts would always escape the late spring freezes so common to the mountains. Oak trees typically pollinate at green-up, and they are subject to late freezes. When this happens, the flowers may be killed and there will be no acorns. For example, during the winters of 2017, 2018 and 2019, there were no acorns in the mountains where I hunted. By the second or third winter with no acorns, the turkey population and most other wildlife had moved away. However, during the next two years, with no late freezes in the spring of 2020 and 2021, those same mountains had plenty of acorns. With the return of acorns, the wildlife came back, as you might expect.

In 1980, I purchased land in northern White County with the intention of building a log home there. This small tract was located at the bottom of a mountain with an elevation of 3,000 feet. Once again, I crossed paths with some chestnut sprouts growing on my new home place. Before I even purchased the land I observed several chestnut sprouts growing from old roots and one chinquapin bush, as well. It seems like everywhere I went in the mountains I always crossed paths with chestnuts.

Herb McClure stands next to a healthy 6- or 7-year-old chestnut tree growing on his White County property. The tree is protected by a wire caging to keep deer and other critters away from it. This tree gets plenty of morning sunlight. Herb learned about the importance of sunlight reaching the trees top many years ago through trial and error.

During the several years it took to build my log house, I became even more fascinated with chestnut trees, and I started talking to my friends about the subject. Lo and behold, a great friend presented me with a book about chestnut trees, “American Chestnut, The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree,” written by Susan Freinkel and published in 2007.

From Freinkel’s book I learned there are still a few surviving pure American chestnut trees living in Georgia and other states. Although very rare, these trees are bearing chestnuts. I also learned there are several organizations, colleges and government agencies working to restore chestnuts back into the Appalachian Mountains, mostly in the northern states.

Two scientific chestnut foundations—the American Chestnut Foundation and the American Chestnut Cooperator Foundation—are trying to breed chestnut trees and make them blight resistant by using several different approaches. (Anyone interested in learning more about chestnut trees can go online and read about some of the research now taking place in restoring the chestnut and the chestnut’s history.)   

The American Chestnut Foundation is crossing the Asian chestnut tree (immune to the blight) with the American chestnut to produce a hybrid tree that will increase the new tree’s blight resistance. The downside of this hybrid tree is that it displays more characteristics of the Asian trees by growing limbs and forks off the main trunk or stem and the bodies of the trees are more spread out. This does not work well in a mountain forest setting where the main stem has to reach up through the forest’s canopy for necessary sunlight. The foundation is now back-breeding these Asian trees once again with American chestnuts in hopes of increasing the American variety’s superior characteristics.

The non-profit American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation works only with pure American chestnut trees that have been located in the wild. These are nut-producing trees that have escaped the blight. After planting nuts from these trees, some have grown into mature trees at least 20 years old. At this point they are then interbred back to an original parent tree from the wild (having survived from growing sprouts). This process of interbreeding has been going on for some 30 or 40 years. The system has proven that second and third generation trees are inheriting genes that are blight resistant, and the trees are pure, “All-American” chestnuts.

Taking The Next Step

After becoming more knowledgeable about chestnut trees, I began to develop an idea. Being a long-time turkey hunter and knowing how much wild turkeys once loved chestnuts as a food source, I wanted to plant some American chestnut trees so that someday the turkeys I hunted in the mountains would benefit. But first I would have to get some original nuts to use as seeds. I began trying to find a pure American chestnut tree from which I could get some nuts. I wanted to put back some pure American chestnuts trees in those same historic areas of the mountains where they were once so important for native mountain turkeys and other wildlife.

I contacted the folks at the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation to inquire about getting some pure American nuts. I was informed that I would have to become a member of the organization to be eligible. I also had to agree to never plant any of their pure nuts anywhere around any Asian chestnuts or hybrid trees. This was just what I wanted for my special place in the mountains because personally I did not want my wild turkeys eating hybrid chestnuts. I wanted them to eat what they had always eaten in the past—pure American chestnuts!

In the fall of 2002, I received 10 nuts from the ACCF. These I planted in containers, and they sprouted the following spring. Planting chestnuts in containers their first year really made it a lot easier to look after them. They had to be watered and cared for during the summer and fall months. Then, after going dormant the following winter, I set some of them out in the high mountains and some at my home place where I had built my cabin. The woods where I turkey hunted was a two-hour drive from my cabin home.

Out of the 10 nuts planted in 2002, only one chestnut seedling survived—and that was at my home place. The other nine seedlings did not die from the blight. They died from the many other hazards that can and do occur in the wild. Now, I am happy to say, after more than 20 years that lone survivor is still blight free.

Two years later in 2004, I planted another tree from a seed with pure American chestnut genes right next to the first surviving tree so that it could be a pollinator. Both trees are on the west side of an open field at my home place so that they can receive morning sunlight. This was based on some very good advice I was given as to how and where to plant the chestnut seedlings for best results.

Over the years I’ve experienced many disappointments and setbacks in trying to establish American chestnuts. I can honestly say it’s been a painstaking adventure! Oftentimes my disappointments came about as a result of not following the good advice I was given because I wanted so badly to re-establish chestnut trees in the higher mountains where I hunted.

One of the recommendations was that it would be more feasible to plant the chestnut seedlings in an open field in rows like an orchard. That was not my desire. Establishing young chestnuts in the forest and keeping them alive was my goal.

The author next to one of the first native chestnut trees he planted on his property in White County more than 20 years ago. It remains blight free. Last year the tree produced its first large crop of chestnuts. “After they started dropping, the squirrels got a lot of them before I could get to them. It made me so mad. It seems like everything likes chestnuts. The squirrels eat the nuts and the deer like to browse the leaves and rub their antlers on the bark. They’re not easy to protect.” Nonetheless, Herb collected about three-dozen precious chestnuts last year. They will all be planted. Herb has high hopes for another good crop of chestnuts in 2023.

Things I’ve Learned

I’d like to point out some things I’ve learned from trying to establish chestnut trees both in a mature forest and at my home place. First, whenever chestnuts are planted, two or more trees should be near each other for pollination. American chestnut trees always need another tree for a pollinator. Here are some of the things I experienced and learned trying to establish chestnuts.

Voles will chew off chestnut seedlings both under and above the ground even if the trees are 5 or 6 years old. You need to use a vole deterrent.

Squirrels and chipmunks will dig up and eat the planted nuts, and even after they have sprouted, they will still dig up the young seedlings to eat the chestnuts off the roots.

Deer really like the young tender chestnut tree’s leaves, and wire cages are a must until a tree is more than head high. Bucks will horn chestnut trees if not protected.

Sunlight is the most important consideration for any chestnut tree to survive. This was one of my toughest obstacles for several years when choosing a place to plant seedlings, especially in a mature forest. I finally began to see what a difference it made in the growth of a tree when it was planted in a spot where it could receive morning sun. Now I always try to find openings in the forest where the tree will get plenty of light.

All of the chestnuts that I have planted have been in container pots. After leaf-drop the following winter, I will plant them in the woods. One disadvantage of growing in containers is that it limits the tap root from growing straight like it would if the nuts were planted in the ground.

While turkey hunting one morning at one of my regular high-mountain hunting places about 20 years ago, before any leaves had put-out on the trees, I was looking down a ridge and I recognized a large standing chestnut tree that was dead. I asked myself why I hadn’t discovered this tree before. I had hunted here many times in the past, but always before there were any leaves on trees, so I had not recognized this particular tree. Since nothing was happening with my turkey hunting, I got up and went down the ridge to where this dead chestnut tree was standing. Lying all around the tree’s base were large pieces of very thick-grooved bark. That bark, no doubt, was probably the answer to my question. All the former chestnut trees I had ever seen in the past were long dead and bare of bark. Since this dead chestnut tree had bark on it in the fairly recent past, I wondered—could it be possible for it to have been alive just a few years before? Yes, I think so. How long had this tree been dead? I don’t know, but it had obviously survived the blight for many years.

Some 20 years later I did locate a large living American chestnut tree. I presumed this tree had re-sprouted from the roots of an original chestnut tree, and it had not yet become a modern victim of the blight. When I first located this tree, its bark was still smooth. But today, its bark has become split and groovy. Also, it is living in my beloved turkey woods. The tree today shows no sign of any blight from the past years. I even removed a large oak tree that was blocking sunlight from shining on the tree’s canopy top. Now, after a few more years since that “day-lighting” of the tree’s top, it has now started forming male catkins or flowers, and for the past two years it has been producing a few chestnut burrs in its upper canopy.

Today this same chestnut tree has reached up into the forest’s highest canopy at about 50 feet, and it receives all the sunshine it needs to produce catkin’s (flowers) and later on chestnut burrs. However, it also needs another chestnut tree nearby for pollination. So far, I don’t know how to solve that problem. If nuts in their burrs are not pollinated, they can’t sprout. The tallest chestnut tree I have planted nearby is only about 20 feet tall. It will take that tree probably another 10 years to make catkins (flowers) and be able to pollinate.

In the meantime, back at my home place, I have two pollen-producing trees. I cut off some of their lower limbs that had catkins on them, and I took these limbs up to the mountain chestnut tree. There, I pushed these cut-off ends down into the ground tightly to hold them upright. I have hopes that some insects will carry some of the pollen from the cut-off limbs up to the catkins in the mountain’s tree top and possibly pollinate some of them.

After 20 years of planting chestnuts in containers, I now have two trees that are forming their burrs. I hope to have a bountiful crop of nuts to plant this coming fall of 2023, and I will be planting their nuts into the ground for the first time and not in containers.

The bark of the young chestnut tree is smooth until the tree begins to mature. The bark of a mature tree will have distinct ridges. So far, this 20-plus-year-old chestnut tree has shown no sign of the blight. Its bark is just starting to show some ridging at its base.

An Amazing Experience

Why do you suppose I became so involved in growing and planting American chestnut seedlings? It might have been because the chestnuts were important to my ancestors for their food and their livestock feed, but that’s not my main reason. My reason was and still is that I wanted to do something that will be beneficial to the wild turkeys living in the mountains where I’ve primarily hunted most of my life. My affection for these wild turkeys and the enjoyment I’ve had when hunting these mountain birds are my two main reasons for wanting to do something for these particular wild turkeys. When one hunts on public land, it’s hard to know of something one can do to give back.

Becoming older and more experienced as a turkey hunter, but less aggressive in my hunting, something within me has made me change. Instead of wanting to kill more and more of those special gobblers, I began wanting to do something for them. I know it will be many years in the future before any of the chestnut trees I have planted will actually help the turkey population. However, I will continue planting chestnuts as long as I can and hope future wild turkeys will still be there as well, benefiting from the chestnuts I may have planted.

The mountains where I have planted chestnut trees are around 3,000 feet in elevation; in some places even higher. The forest there is made up mostly of hardwood trees, including many varieties of oaks. It’s a sad fact that these hardwoods are being threatened by the more prolific and taller-growing white pines, and someday acorn production could be limited due to shading.

I believe that American chestnut trees will re-evolve and make a comeback through some revolutionary new process yet to be discovered by today’s tree scientists. In my opinion, Mother Nature sometimes has a remarkable way of turning things around after they’ve gone wrong and making the wrongs positive again. A prime example would be the American chestnut tree just mentioned that I found living in Georgia’s high mountains. It’s now producing chestnut burrs with no signs of blight!

In closing, I’d like to say one more thing: I’ve never known of any plant or animal more determined to live and make a comeback than the American chestnut tree.

They’ve been fighting for survival for over 100 years now!

Trail-camera photo of a flock of mountain turkeys passing by the decaying remnants of a chestnut tree.

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