Searching for North America’s Tallest Surviving American Chestnut

Copyright © 2019 Doctor Chuck Radis. All Rights Reserved

I am picking my way through second growth forest in search of the tallest surviving American chestnut tree in North America. From the deep, well-drained soil, towering white pines, like masts on a clipper ship, reach toward the canopy. Muscular red oaks vie for space in the shaded woods. I alternate between craning my head upwards, searching for a glimpse of the chestnut’s distinctive white flowers, and scanning the forest floor for last year’s burs and dropped leaves. It’s here somewhere. Maybe this time I’ll find it.

I’d read the initial stories about the tree in 2015, how research forester Dr. Brian Roth of the University of Maine was flying overhead with graduate students, Elias Ayrey and Elizabeth Farrell, when he spied chestnut flowers peeking through the top of the forest canopy in Lovell, Maine. When it was measured, the tree stood 115 feet, a North American record.

Maine is at the northern range of the American chestnut, a tree so successful that an estimated 3 billion trees blanketed the United States from the Ohio River valley eastward through the Appalachian mountains. But a European fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica), found its way to New York City in the late 1800’s, and the blight spread like a cancer throughout the tree’s range. Air-born spores from the fungus reached even isolated stands. In the space of only 50 years, the tree was nearly extinct. Somehow, the chestnut in Lovell was spared.  

When I set out to find the tree, I realized one critical detail was missing from the accounts I’d read online: The specific location of the tree. My interest was piqued. I’ve always been intrigued by what’s around the next bend, or over the next hill.

My first stop was the Waterford public library where I asked librarian Carol Waldeier if she knew anything about the tree. “Why yes, I think my husband, before he passed away, may have brought me there.”

“Can you give me directions to the tree?” I asked.

“Hmm….I don’t remember exactly where it’s located, somewhere in Lovell.”

“Any idea about who might know?”

“You might start by asking at Rosie’s restaurant down the road.”

Fifteen minutes later I pulled into Rosie’s. As the busy waitress took my order I asked, “Have you heard about the tallest American chestnut tree here in Lovell?”

“Sure, it’s right near my house.”

“Great! Have you seen it?”

“No, but 5 miles north of here on Route 5 look for a dirt road on your left.”

Patches of late spring snow were visible in the woods as I drove north. At a little over 5 miles I pulled over. The snow: ankle, then calf, then knee deep soaked through my jeans. Moving deeper into the forest, I concentrated on lofty candidate trees. From time to time, I kicked through the snow at the base of a particularly tall tree only to find beech or oak leaves. After an hour or so, I trudged back to my car, leaving my cell phone number and e-mail on the door of the Greater Lovell Land Trust down the street from Rosie’s.

Late that afternoon, my phone rang. It was Bob Winship, a member of the Lovell Land Trust. Was he whispering into the phone or was it just my imagination? I had considered that there was some sort of well-meaning conspiracy to hide the location of the tree from outsiders. But Bob was affable and informative and wanted to help. After hearing my description of where I parked, he suggested that I probably went up the wrong dirt road. “Look for your turn-off maybe two hundred yards south of where you parked last month. Go .1 mile uphill. There are orange surveyor flags along the way. When you come to a stump with an iron surveyor pipe the tree is nearby.”

Three weeks later, my wife Sandi and I located the road and inched our way along looking for orange surveyor flags. “There’s one!” Sandi exclaimed, “And another!”

I licked my lips. This was it. We spread out in the woods, stopping here and there to admire painted trillium, bunchberry, and star flower. I picked my way towards a promising trunk and looked skyward, comparing the trunk with photocopies of the tree from one of the 2015 stories. It looked like a match. I picked up a few leaves from the ground. They were long and saw-toothed. Dropping to my knees I inspected the forest floor, searching for burrs. Finding none, I convinced myself that decay and rodents had destroyed the evidence.

That night, I called Bob Winship and breathlessly recounted my discovery. There was a long pause on the other end. Finally, he said, “Did you find the stump with the iron surveyor’s pipe?”

“Well, not really,” I said.

“And you didn’t find any burrs? You know, last time I visited the tree, the ground was littered with burrs. Which way did you go in the woods when you left your car?”   

“Left.”

“That’s the problem, you need to look in the woods to the right.”

“Oh,” I exhaled. “To the right?”

“To the right. Good luck, you’re almost there.”  

The next weekend I arose at dawn from my home on Peaks Island, took the ferry to Portland, and drove to Lovell. I located the orange surveyor pipe and parked. The air was heavy and damp and black flies swarmed round my head. As I methodically transected the property, I stopped now and then to appreciate hay-scented fern and carpets of mayflowers. No tree. After an hour of methodically double-checking candidate trees, stepping round rotted logs, and picking my way through clumps of thorny underbrush. I grew increasingly discouraged.

Then, scanning the ground, where I must have walked by twice before, I spied two chestnut burrs. Stepping closer, I picked one up and pricked a finger. The longer I stood, the more I saw. More than a dozen burrs lay scattered around the base of the tree. The forest floor was littered with chestnut leaves. The champion chestnut tree towered overhead.                               

Through the open woods, I spied my red Subaru parked on the edge of the dirt road, a stone’s throw from where I started. Like so many things in life, we miss a lot on the first pass. The trick is to keep looking.

Dr. Chuck Radis

8 thoughts on “Searching for North America’s Tallest Surviving American Chestnut

  1. Excellent Chuck.Good read. The story of the
    American Chestnut stuck w me from a class I had at Rutgers College. Field Ecology. We would spy small chestnut trees, never to grow more than a few feet due to the fungus. Enjoyed this. Thanks!
    Pete

    • Thanks Pete. My interest in trees and plants derives from my older brother, Rick. He still lives in N.J. and is a land use consultant who seems to know everything there is to know about the fields and forest. Chuck

  2. Wonder why that tree is still alive? Natural fungal resistance or just plain luck? Great story!

    • JPL (just plain luck) is what I’ve been told. Incredibly, even after more than a century after the fungus came to NY from Europe, there hasn’t been any resistance develop (from my research). The American Chestnut Foundation is involved with a long-term project in cross-breeding the resistant Chinese chestnut with the American chestnut. If you read about a truly resistant tree Chris, let me know…. Chuck

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