Lost Grandeur: The American Elm and Chestnut Tree by Ellen Onorato


“Under the spreading chestnut tree” and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” are merely trite phrases to many of us, yet the chestnut tree was not only imposing in size but certainly, its spiked treasures were a wonderment for small eyes and small hands as they were scattered underneath these grand and protective trees. The chestnuts’ prickly exterior was unique, but the shiny chestnut “gem” inside was an edible and very nutritious treasure. 
Another species, the grand majesty of the arching American elm tree was also an influential part of our hometowns and cities. These magnificent trees often created a marvelous green canopy beautifying our main streets. Most old postcards such as Uxbridge’s Main Street, are filled with these tall, graceful trees, though sadly no longer alive to be enjoyed throughout our hometowns. But thoughts of their vivid images bring back memories of very attractive and often, very tall (up to 120’) gateways into our downtown areas. 
The American elm, also known as the Liberty elm, is the state tree of Massachusetts’ having been in the background as protests of the Stamp Act on August 14, 1765 ensued and the elm’s limbs even held effigies of Lord Butte and Andrew Oliver. In fact, the British cut down that particular Liberty elm in 1775 as perhaps they understood its significance as our forefathers pusued their freedoms from taxation without representation. But by the late 1960s after generations had enjoyed this majestic splendor of graceful arches for centuries, a very strong fungus, the Dutch elm disease, had literally demolished 77 million of these trees. Entire streets lined with these lovely canopies, also providing tremendous shade and cool air in the summer warmth, were virtually lost to this dreaded disease. 
The chestnut tree, on the other hand, had been a dominant species in our forests and yards for centuries. This stately tree and its nutritious nuts were practically wiped out by an exotic blight that accompanied the Asian Chestnut tree imported to New York City around 1904. From the late 1950s to today, the chestnut trees died throughout more than nine million acres along the eastern United States. 
While we might think that these losses matter little - let us recall the stately splendor and great breadth and shapes these majestic trees could reach. As a child, I am sure that many of us can remember embracing arms to see how many people would be needed to entirely encircle these magnificent and often, very wide beauties. Back in the fifties, eleven children gathered after church to barely touch fingers around one such tree in Webster. 
Spending hours collecting fallen chestnuts, well after the days that chestnuts were part of the meal or commerce are also vivid memories. Prying them open to marvel at their shiny, chestnut brown irregular shapes was always absorbing in the days without television or mass media. But the delights of circling an elm or chestnut tree as children doesn’t begin to appreciate the profound economic and environmental loss that was felt as these trees died off and altered both developed and undeveloped landscapes.
The native animal and bird habitats were severely impacted by the loss of the chestnut as food. Many rural economies were predicated on the chestnut - all lost in a relatively short span. Great sources of timber vanished almost overnight due to the blight and downtowns that were forever diminished aesthetically. 
However, in recent years, three disease-resistant elms have been genetically developed, as hybrids, to withstand repeated inoculations of the Dutch elm fungus. The most closely related to the American elm is the Liberty Elm developed at the University of Wisconsin in 1983 and now available at some nurseries. 
Winnepeg, Canada is still intact as a wonderful example of the old Main Street that never lost its native elms, and Manchester, N.H. and Acton, MA have made either municipal or private investments in regenerating this symbolic tree with disease resistent hybrids. Perhaps we can restore our elms to the Valley, too! 
Most chestnuts we eat today in stuffings or roasted on open fires come from Italy. No more American chestnuts carpet the forest grounds or feed humans or animals. The American Chestnut Foundation is working steadily to develop a disease resistant American chestnut tree. Thousands of trees in developmental stages are growing in Virgina with hopes that they will go to marketplace in the next decade. 
Let’s hope that the elegant and stately trees many of us grew up with once again line our reinvigorated downtowns or grace our remaining forest floors. It will surely take decades, but hopes become visions and then realities if we take the steps to plant and nourish these magnificent beauties of the past.