We are on the northern range of where the big majestic tree – American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) – used to call home. We have all heard amazing stories about what these trees looked like. In southern New England, they were the most abundant tree, sometimes making up 25% of the eastern hardwood forest, as Charles Fergus describes in his Trees of New England book. We would be lucky to encounter a mature C. dentata as only a very few of them remain; most of them are bushes or small trees since they are continuously reinfected by the fungus – Cryphonectria parasitica – that arrived from Asia and devastated the giant trees.
It has been about 7 years since we planted chestnut trees at Sterling and this summer was the first time that they bloomed and bore fruit; such a moment of reverence it was to harvest the nut and welcome a long awaited new crop to the Sterling Farm.
The trees were purchased from East Hill Tree Farm in Plainfield and the Resilient Ecological Farm Planning Pod helped harvest the nuts from the Pine Pasture in the Fall semester, followed by a visit with Nicko Rubin, owner of the East Hill Tree Farm. As part of our tour through Nicko’s farm, we stopped for a nice talk in his chestnut grove. The grove is planted with Chinese/American hybrids and pure American chestnuts to let nature create a blight-resistant American Chestnut hybrid that is resilient and adapted to place. There are other ways that this is being explored, in particular by The American Chestnut Foundation. For years, the Foundation has been working on a variety of approaches from traditional breeding to GMO trees to biocontrol using a virus that infects the Chestnut Blight fungus. Letting nature be your laboratory is what we do here at Sterling.
But why chestnuts? There are lots of other nuts the College could grow – and we do – but the chestnut tree might once again become a keystone partner to create ecological solutions to our troubled human food system. The chestnut tree was already described as “a corn tree” by J, Russell Smith in his book Tree Crops – A Permanent Agriculture in 1953, or as “a bread tree” by Arkiva Silver in his book Trees of Power in 2019. It is obviously a very different plant from corn and wheat since it is a tree and a perennial, but in the food system they share similarities. Livestock can be raised on the nuts, leaves can be used for bedding, and nuts can be ground into flour. Could an American Hybrid chestnut play a role to diversify the cornfields of Vermont? Sterling hopes to explore that further with its students as this project develops. We hope the Sterling kitchen is ready to engage with preparing delicious recipes containing chestnuts, and who knows if the unsustainable production of palm oil could be challenged by the return of an ecological keystone species that benefits both native wildlife and the climate, while also creating delicious oils.