Toasting Chestnuts

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . ” So the traditional song goes.

Meanwhile, in Lovell, we’ve been toasting the American chestnut trees since The American Chestnut Foundation and the University of Maine recognized a tree on a local property as being the tallest in North America two weeks ago.

dr brian


 TV crews


The final measurement: 115 feet tall. The only tree that has been found to be taller is a 121-footer that apparently is growing in a Belgium arboretum.

Why all the fuss? The American Chestnut Foundation “estimates that over four billion American chestnuts, 1/4 of the hardwood tree population, grew  from Maine to Florida and from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley.”

These majestic trees were important to wildlife and man. Native Americans used the nuts to treat a variety of ailments. Deer, squirrels, birds and bears ate the nuts. Nuts were sold commercially and the wood was used to create furniture, fence posts and telephone poles.

All of that changed in the twentieth century.

blight 3

A bark fungus or blight accidentally introduced on imported Asiatic chestnut trees began to attack the American chestnuts in the early 1900s. Blight symptoms include bark swelling and sucker branches.

Where's Waldo

While North America’s tallest tree isn’t located on Greater Lovell Land Trust property, we know that there are several American chestnut trees just up the road at the Heald/Bradley Pond Reserve.

Our intention–to celebrate the trees. And to try to get to know them better. It’s actually a where’s Waldo moment upon each encounter. Being a member of the Fagaceae family, which includes Northern red oaks and beech trees, the similarities throw us off.

like red oak

Chestnut bark

The ridged bark is flat-topped and reminds me of the ski trails we see on Northern red oak. It takes a closer look to realize that chestnut has a wee bit different coloration and design.

bark 2

The bark characteristics also remind me of aspen trees, which have flattened ridges and horizontal lines that visible on the lower portion of the trunk.

chestnut husks

But the real clues are to be found on the ground.

fruit and stem

Large painfully prickly burrs house the delicious nuts. They mature in the fall and fall to the ground following the first frost.

home of viable seeds

Usually three nuts reside within each burr.

beech and chestnut 2

The other clue–the leaves, which are longer and narrower than beech. Beech on the left, chestnut on the right.

barbed leaf

The leaf’s margin is bristle-toothed and each hook curves inward. At the base, the blade tapers to the stem.

Chestnut #2

We paid homage to each tree before moving on.

grape fern

grape fern 2

Of course, we found other things of interest along the way–numerous grape ferns inhabit part of the trail. Their common name is reflective of the grape-like clusters of sporangia that grow on a separate stalk.

rattlesnake leaf

Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), though a common species of the orchid family, always stops us in our tracks. The striking leaves, with their network of silvery veins and a broad stripe down the center, resembles snake skin. They are covered in fine downy hairs, difficult to see from this photo.

rattlesnake pods

Each seedpod contains 200-400 seeds–rather teeny seeds.


We also found checkered rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera tessellate), with its much more subtle green markings. Equally beautiful.


Yesterday, the labyrinth structure of tubes and pores on a Gilled Polypore (Lenzites betulina) wowed us.

2nd pigskin

Today, my second Pigskin Poison Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum) ever. This one was quite broken down and slimy rather than rubbery/leathery. But still–I recognized it immediately. My mushroom guru, Parker, was part of the group, and he thinks I’m getting better at identifying fungi. I’m not so sure about that, but this one is distinctly different from any others.

#1 on hill

One final look at one of the mighty American chestnut trees on GLLT property.

While those chestnuts roasting over open fires are now European chestnuts, we toast the American chestnut trees of Lovell as we wonder about their future.