November 3, 2002
DAMN FUNGUS:The Chestnut's Chemical Arsenal (Rachael Moeller Gorman, Discover)
The once-ubiquitous American chestnut tree, which was devastated by an Asian fungus in the early 1900s, is often portrayed as a weakling that crumpled when faced with an acute environmental challenge. David Van Lear of Clemson University in South Carolina now suggests that the chestnut was actually more like a forest bully. He and his colleagues have found that chestnut leaves contain natural herbicides that the tree uses to inhibit the growth of neighboring plants. This form of chemical combat may help explain how the tree rose to become a dominant species in the southern Appalachian woods. It may also help forest managers understand the likely impacts of current plans to reintroduce the chestnut into American forests.
The American chestnut used to be king of the forest, growing to over 100 feet tall and from six to 17 feet wide. Chestnuts were a staple crop for many Appalachian families, who not only ate the nutritious and tasty nut and fed it to their livestock but also sold them to New York and other big cities for Christmas roasting.
When we were kids, the pretzel vendors on Manhattan sidewalks used to also sell bags of roasted chestnuts, which our grandfather loved. And we had several trees in our neighborhood, the nuts from which virtually begged to be thrown at random targets or, in those pre-Ritalin days, each other. Pity the kids who never get to enjoy the sheer tactile pleasure of rubbing a chestnut in their fist while scoping out a suitable target.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 3, 2002 10:06 AM