Sandra L. Anagnostakis
chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) were once so common in the
Eastern United States that everyone who could get to the woods
in the Fall could count on nuts for roasting and for stuffing
their Thanksgiving turkey. The wood was highly resistant to
rot, and used extensively for poles, fencing, and building
materials. An "imported" fungus disease was discovered in
New York City in 1904, and within 50 years it had changed
the appearance of our eastern forests. The fungus, Cryphonectria
(formerly Endothia) parasitica, enters wounds, grows in and
under the bark, and eventually kills the cambium all the way
around the twig, branch, or trunk. Everything distal to this
"canker" then dies, sprouts are formed, and the process starts
all over again. From the earliest discovery of the disease
attempts were made to control it, but nothing worked. A major
forest tree was reduced to a multiple-stemmed shrub (1). In
1912 the Plant Quarantine Act was passed to reduce the chances
of such a catastrophy happening again (12).
did the chestnut blight fungus come from, and when did it
come to the United States?
the blight fungus was discovered here, plant explorer Frank
Meyer found that it was present in both China and Japan,
and that Asian trees were often very resistant to the disease
and showed few symptoms when infected (10,11). This was
taken as proof that Asian trees imported into the United
States had brought the blight with them.
H. Powell wrote in 1900 (9) that Japanese chestnut trees
(Castanea crenata) were first imported in 1876 by nurseryman
S. B. Parsons of Flushing, NY (in the New York City borough
of Queens, at the western end of Long Island). These were
widely distributed, and two of them were planted and still
survive in southern Connecticut. In 1882, William Parry
in New Jersey imported 1000 grafted Japanese chestnut trees.
In the West, Luther Burbank planted a box of seeds sent
by his collector from Japan in 1886. He subsequently had
over 10,000 bearing trees growing in his Santa Rosa, California
nursery. Three of his selections were sold to Judge Coe
in Connecticut, and then to J. H. Hale who propagated and
sold them from his South Glastonbury, CT nursery.
also reported that (by 1899) there were over 300 acres of
chestnut trees near Philadelphia grafted with European and
Japanese varieties, and that the Lovett Co. in Little Silver,
NJ (near the coast, about 15 miles south of Long Island)
had also imported Japanese chestnut trees and were selling
them by mail-order.
1899 and 1900 catalogues of the Mt. Hope Nursery (also known
as Ellwanger and Barry, Rochester, New York) advertised
Japanese, European, and American chestnut trees for sale
(Table 1). In 1930 when Arthur Graves
was looking for resistant trees for breeding he found large
Japanese chestnut trees on several estates on Long Island
(New York) and in northern New Jersey. He said that many
of them had been purchased around the turn of the century
as "Japanese Giant" from a nursery near Rochester (3).
or many of these importations of Japanese chestnut trees
could have been the source of chestnut blight. In addition,
the mail-order sales could have spread imported blight to
all of the places were the trees were shipped.
chestnut trees (Castanea mollissima) were imported later.
G. D. Brill went to China in 1900 and sent back chestnuts
from Hankow and Ichang, and Lathrop and Fairchild sent seed
back from Canton in 1902. Most of these were planted in
the seed nursery in Bell, Maryland, but could have been
another source of blight for the south.
discovery of chestnut blight in the Bronx Zoo was described
by Merkel (4) as follows:
few scattered cases which occurred [on American chestnut
trees] during the summer of 1904. Early last June 
this disease was noticed on so many widely scattered trees
of all sizes that specimen branches and an appeal for information
were sent to the U.S.D.A."
A. Murrill reported in 1906 that:
disease is known to occur also in New Jersey, Maryland,
the District of Columbia, and Virginia."
in 1908 Murrill said:
disease is abundant in and about New York City, on Long
Island, and in New Jersey, and is known to occur along the
Hudson as far north as Poughkeepsie. Specimens have been
sent in from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland.
disease was at first supposed to be confined to our native
chestnut, but in the autumn of 1906 an affected branch was
found upon one of the Japanese chestnut trees (Castanea
crenata) growing in the open near the eastern boundary of
the [New York Botanical] Garden."
later in 1908 he wrote:
origin of the disease and the center of its distribution
are still entirely unknown, while the area of its distribution
is known very imperfectly as yet and can be determined accurately
only by careful field explorations conducted by competent
Department of Forestry report by John Mickleborough (6)
listed distribution in 1909:
presence is known by the writer from personal examinations
to extend from near the northern boundary of Maryland, through
south eastern Pennsylvania, across New Jersey and New York.
...On Long Island the disease has spread for fifty or sixty
miles with great rapidity, and is most prevalent and its
ravages the most deadly...."
Since there was no blight in one area examined in Pennsylvania:
"It was decided at once to make an Experiment Station at the
Gap and to plant twenty-five Japanese chestnut trees and
to start with one hundred grafts of the same species. ...Through
the generosity of Mr. Isaac Hicks, a nurseryman at Westbury,
Long Island, twenty-five Japanese chestnut trees were donated
for the experiment and all the Japanese scions that could
be used." probably bringing the blight with them.
Finally, when Haven Metcalf and J. Franklin Collins wrote their 1909
Bulletin they stated:
"Even [in 1904] it is certain that [chestnut blight] had spread
over Nassau County and Greater New York, and had found lodgment
in the adjacent counties of Connecticut and New Jersey.
No earlier observation than this is recorded, but it is
evident that the disease, which would of necessity have
made slow advance at first, must have been in this general
locality for a number of years in order to have gained such
a foothold by 1904. Conspicuous as it is, it is strange
that the fungus causing this disease was not observed or
collected by any mycologist until May,1905, when specimens
were received from New Jersey by Mrs. F. W. Patterson, the
Mycologist of the Bureau of Plant Industry. ...By August,
1907, specimens receivedby this Bureau showed that the disease
had reached at least as far south as Trenton, N. J., and
as far north as Poughkeepsie, N. Y., and was spread generally
over Westchester and Nassau Counties, N. Y., Bergen County,
N. J., and Fairfield County, Conn. ...reports have been
received from points as remote as Cape Cod, Wellesley and
Pittsfield, Mass.; Rochester and Shelter Island, N. Y.,
and Akron, Ohio. ...It can be quite confidently stated that
the bark disease does not yet occur south of Virginia...
The theory...that the Japanese chestnuts were the original source
of infection, has been strengthened by many facts...
While the disease has spread principally from the vicinity of
New York City] there is much to indicate that it occurred
at other points at an early date. Chester's Cytospora on
a Japanese chestnut noted at Newark, Del., in 1902, may
have been the bark disease. Observations by the junior writer
indicate that this disease may have been present in an orchard
in Bedford County, Va. as early as 1903, and that in Lancaster
County, Pa., it probably was present as early as 1905...
It becomes more and more evident as this disease is studied
that diseased nursery stock is the most important factor
in its spread to distant points."
Can we tell now where the chestnut blight fungus first came
in? Any or all of those early Japanese imports could have
carried blight. Certainly, the Bronx Zoo was not responsible
for bringing it in, even though their sharp-eyed grounds
people first recognized the problem. People anxious to plant
something new and different do not always notice problems
on old and common plants. The catastrophe crept up on us,
and left us a lesson that we continue to try to cope with
A biological control imported from Europe in 1972 allows us to keep American
chestnut trees alive for breeding, and may be improved for
better spread in the forest (1). Breeding projects are underway
to combine the nut quality and timber form of American chestnuts
with blight resistance of Asian chestnuts to produce trees
for orchards and forests. We cannot undo the mistake of
bringing chestnut blight into the United States, but perhaps
understanding the history of this catastrophe will make
us more cautious in the future.
Table 1. Chestnut Trees By Mail-Order
||cost each, $
Jacob W. Manning, MA
||0.50 to $1.00
|J. T. Lovett Co.
Little Silver, NJ
0.10 - 0.25
|Storrs and Harrison
0.50 - 0.75
|Shady Hill Nursery
F. L. Temple, Cambridge (Somerville), MA
||0.10 - 0.35
H. P. Kelsey, Boston, MA
||0.15 - 0.50
|Mt. Hope Nursery
Ellwanger and Barry,
|Elm City Nursery
New Haven, CT
|0.50 - 1.00
0.25 - 1.00
0.50 - 1.00
P. J. Berckmans, Augusta, GA
|0.25 - 1.00
J. H. Hale, South Glastonbury, CT
||Japanese hybrids (from Luther Burbank)
'Coe', 'Hale', 'McFarland'
|C. B. Hornor and Son
Mt. Holly, NJ
|0.25 - 0.35
1.00 - 2.50
- Anagnostakis, S. L. and B. Hillman. 1992. Evolution of
the chestnut tree and its blight. Arnoldia 52:3-10.
- Crane, H. L., C. A. Reed, and M. N. Wood. 1937. Nut Breeding
(chestnut on pp 827- 835), Yearbook of Agriculture for
1937, pp 827-889.
- Graves, Arthur H. 1930. Progress toward the development
of disease resistant strains of chestnut. Brooklyn Botanic
Garden Record, 19:62-67.
- Merkel, Hermann W. 1905. A deadly fungus on the American
chestnut. N.Y. Zoological Society, 10th Annual Report,p.
- Metcalf, Haven and J. Franklin Collins. 1909 The present
status of the chestnut bark disease. U.S.D.A. Bureau of
Plant Industry Bulletin #141, part V.
- Mickleborough, John. 1909. A report on the chestnut tree
blight, the fungus Diaporthe parasitica, Murrill. Department
of Forestry, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg.
- Murrill, W. A. 1908a. The spread of the chestnut disease.
Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 9:23-30.
- Murrill, W. A. 1908b. The chestnut canker. Torreya 8:111-112.
- Powell, G. H. 1900. The European and Japanese chestnuts
in the Eastern United States. 11th Annual Report of the
Delaware College Agricultural Experiment Station, pp 101-135.
- Shear, C. L. and N. E. Stevens 1913. The chestnut-blight
parasite (Endothia parasitica) from China. Science 38:295-297.
- Shear, C. L. and N. E. Stevens 1916. The discovery of
the chestnut-blight parasite (Endothia parasitica) and
other chestnut fungi in Japan. Science 43:173-176.
- Waterworth, H. E. and G. A. White 1982. Plant introductions
and quarantine: the need for both. Plant Disease 66:87-90.
Return to "The Chestnut Story" Introduction
- An Historical Reference for Chestnut Introductions Into North America
- Chestnuts And The Introduction Of Chestnut Blight
- Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp Found On American Chestnut Trees
- Valuable Chestnut Germplasm In Connecticut
- Chestnut Breeding In The United States
- Sources Of Chestnut Trees 1998
more information contact Sandra
L. Anagnostakis, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment
Station, Box 1106, New Haven, CT 06504, phone 203-974-8498,