Published July 12, 2011 08:39 AM

They Might Be Giants Again

It would seem Yvonne Federowicz is embarked on a fruitless — some might say nut-less — mission. The mighty American chestnut tree, at least ones bigger than saplings, disappeared more than a century ago. These trees that once dominated the forests of the eastern United States, often lived for more than 100 years and grew as high as 200 feet are functionally extinct.


Much of Federowicz's focus for the past decade, however, has been working to bring these iconic symbols back, and she isn't going at it alone. As president of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, she has nearly 400 other members working with her to overcome the devastating blight that has decimated the tree's population.

"You can find American chestnuts in our woods but they only live for a few years," the North Providence resident said. "Their stems grow for a few years before the blight hits. They're lucky if they get to 15 to 20 feet. A lot only make it to be a foot high."

At the end of 19th century, more than a quarter of the trees in East Coast, Midwest and southern forests were American chestnuts. The tree produces a rot-resistant wood and sweet nuts that don’t have to be roasted. It's the tree mentioned by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in "The Village Blacksmith."

A late-flowering (early summer), reliable and productive tree, unaffected by seasonal frosts, the American chestnut tree was the most important food source for a variety of wildlife. Rural communities depended upon the annual chestnut harvest to feed livestock.

The usefulness of its wood was unparalleled. Chestnut wood is straight-grained, easily worked, lightweight and highly rot-resistant, making it ideal for fence posts, telephone poles, railroad ties and barn beams, as well as for fine furniture and musical instruments. Tannic acid in its bark and wood was used to tan leather.

Since the turn of the 19th century, however, the "Redwoods of the East" have been reeling. Chestnut blight was one of the largest ecological disasters of the 20th century.

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