Bill Finn, well known and appreciated for his volunteer trail work on Mt Tom in Western Massachusetts, recently sent me some photos of sprouting and fruiting American chestnut trees from Mt Tom. He saw the trees in an area that was clobbered by a severe microburst nearly three years ago, in October, 2014. The bushy chestnut sprouts had flowered; some now had small burrs on them, the prickly husks that contain the chestnut fruits (ie, nuts).
|American Chestnut catkins|
|American Chestnut sprout|
Since American chestnut trees were virtually wiped out by the chestnut blight of the last century, we never see mature chestnut trees here anymore. A very few do still exist here and there in the U.S., but I personally know of only one site (in Vermont) where a few large chestnuts could be found. I and some friends saw those trees, coincidentally, in the same month the microburst hit Mt Tom, three years ago. Every one of them had signs of the blight, and may no longer exist now. The largest was a beauty, 8'9" in circumference at 4.5' above ground. Seeing these mature chestnuts was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, as I had never seen mature ones before, nor since.
|8'9" cbh American Chestnut (VT, 2014)|
The blight kills the chestnut's above-ground stem, but does not kill the root system; therefore, the roots repeatedly send up new sprouts, which grow for perhaps several years, then succumb to the blight. I've seen hundreds of root-sprouted chestnuts, occasionally some with nuts, but Bill's report raised my curiosity just the same. So I visited the microburst site, which is conveniently along a road on Mt Tom.
While there, I saw the multitude of bushy chestnuts Bill reported, and took note of many other species that are slowly recovering from the beating they took. Among them were basswoods, hophornbeams, slippery (red) elms, hickories, sugar and red maples, red oaks, chestnut oaks, black birch, paper birch, sassafras, bigtooth aspen, sumac, white ash, butternut, and more.
|8'9" cbh American Chestnut (VT, 2014)|
There were blueberries, elderberries, pokeweed, beaked hazelnuts, and grapes. Wildflowers too numerous to mention, witch hazel, and mountain laurel.
|A 5'10" nut, and the 8'9" VT Chestnut|
They're all thriving in the sun on the mountainside, where once there was a tall canopy of trees that shaded and cooled the roadway.
|American Chestnuts (Vermont, 2014)|
You have to work quite diligently to keep the forest at bay here in New England; leave a patch of open ground alone for a year or so, and a forest will begin to happen there. The hardwood trees that were snapped off and stripped of limbs by the microburst three years ago are sprouting new branches and foliage. They look like fuzzy utility poles from a distance (see photo), but in time will develop spreading crowns once again. The forest is resilient, and although trees can be destroyed by natural events, they do return.
A forest is much, much more than just the woody trunks we see sticking up out of the soil however. There's a subterranean mirror world below them, with roots that spread just like a crown of branches. An internet of fungal webs connects the trees together underground, and there are scads of other organisms we know little about. It all works as a system we don't understand completely.
At Mt Tom, nature reworked some of her design three years ago. We wisely left most of the downed timber in place (other than what blocked the roadway), and its constituent materials are currently being decomposed and recycled into new trees. It's unlikely that any of the chestnuts will be blight resistant and live long enough to become stately elders of the woodlands, but there soon will be shade over Christopher Clark Road again. Three cheers!
|Swath of microburst damage (center), 3 years later|
|Microburst-damaged trees refoliating|
|"Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree" (Well, maybe someday...)|