Once referred to as the redwood of the East, the American chestnut is a deciduous hardwood that historically made up an overwhelming portion of the forests that stretched from Southern Ontario all the way to Mississippi. Distinguishable from it’s cousins the European Sweet Chestnut, Chinese chestnut, and Japanese chestnut by a few morphological characteristics, like leaf shape, an 1888 issue of Orchard and Garden mentions the American chestnut as being “superior in quality to any found in Europe”. Once an incredibly important source for hardwood timber, American chestnuts have nearly been eliminated by an Asiatic tree fungus in their historical habitat. This epidemic started in the early 1900′s and is known as the Chestnut Blight.
It has been estimated that at one time 25% of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American chestnut, and there were over three billion in North America as a whole. Within its historical range today it is estimated that there may only be around 100 mature (60cm/24in diameter) American chestnuts left. Planted American chestnuts can be found in the humid/fungus free western United States, but there are still heavy concentrations of the Asiatic pathogen present in their natural habitat here on the East Coast that prevent saplings from ever reaching maturity.
Chestnut produces wonderful patinas and is capable of having multiple grain characteristics. It can be straight to spiral or interlocked with a coarse uneven texture. Its heartwood usually has a creamy light to medium brown coloring that becomes reddish brown with age, and sapwood that ranges from pale white to light brown. The American chestnut is also hailed for its astounding durability and high tannin content. Easy to saw, split, finish, and very rot resistant. This rare and relatively valuable wood is all around great for timber.
Chestnuts played a very important role in the lives of Eastern Americans up until the blight. The nuts were once an incredibly important food/economic resource. Edible both raw and roasted. The wood itself was at one time particularly valuable on a commercial scale due to it’s fast growth rate in comparison to other hardwoods. For centuries it was used commonly for split rail fencing, shingles, flooring, pier construction, plywood, telephone poles and home construction. As stated above the wood carries a high level of tannin making it very rot resistant.
Today American Chestnut is reclaimed from old barns and other sources and is re-purposed into flooring, furniture, and a multitude of other uses. Wormy chestnut, wood damaged by insects characterized by the small wholes and trenches that appear throughout, while considered a defective grade of lumber has become particularly valuable for its unique, rustic patina.