Friday, December 23, 2011

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire: What Ever Happened to this Christmas Tradition?

The American Chestnut.  Whatever happened to the American tradition of, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."????
Everyone knows how the song goes, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."  But how many people really have roasted chestnuts over an open fire for Christmas?  I can't think of a single person.  Of course nuts are part of Christmas tradition today as we can find walnuts, pecans, almonds, pistachios, and of course the corresponding famed nutcrackers in stores.  Chestnuts also can be occasionally be found but these are always the Chinese variety as opposed to the traditional American variety.  It has been said that roasting chestnuts on an open fire was such a common tradition in the eastern United States that its distinctive smell could be found throughout towns in the east this time of year.  Part of this was because the American Chestnut tree was extremely abundant prior to the early 1900's.  But no more.  So what happened to this once nearly universal American tradition?  The answer can be found in the plight of the American Chestnut beginning in 1904.

The Asian chestnut trees have grown for millenniums with chestnut bark fungus, resulting in strong resistance.  American trees, however, were never exposed to this fungus and therefore could not easily survive infection.  Beginning in 1904 the first american tree infected with the bark fungus was found in the Bronx Zoo.  The disease had been accidentally transported to the United Stated from Asia on an imported Chinese Chestnut tree.  After the initial infection in the Bronx, the disease spread rapidly through air-born fungal spores.  American Chestnut trees were killed by the billions.  The disease quickly became known as chestnut blight, and by the early 1940's had made the american chestnut tree exceedingly rare.  During this 40 or so year span the chestnut tree also was aggressively logged in forest areas and cut down in residential areas.  This aggressive removal of trees was done simply because it was thought they were all going to die anyway.  As a result, the blight made this once abundant tree has today been wiped out from the landscape and with it, the tradition of roasting chestnuts at Christmas time.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...
But there is hope for the return of the chestnut tree and therefor the roasting chestnuts at Christmas.  While it may appear that the American Chestnut is extinct, a handful of small areas with surviving trees have been discovered.  It has been estimated that less than 100 have survived that are greater than 24 inches in diameter. Many more, but still not a lot, survive as roots in the ground that send up sprouts that never reach more than a few inches in diameter before the blight kills them.  If it were not for the aggressive logging of chestnut trees in response to the blight many, but not a lot, more likely would have survived.  Unfortunately, some of these surviving trees could likely still be killed by the blight.  Fortunately, however, many of these survivors likely are resistant to the blight and can be propagated to reintroduce and repopulate chestnut trees in eastern North America.  Geneticists and plant breeders are also working to identify and place genes that are resistant to the blight into American Chestnuts.  They are using both the resistant Chinese chestnut and the surviving American Chestnuts to find genes and breed new resistant breeds of American Chestnuts.  Many non-scientists who are interested gardeners, naturalists, and landscapers are taking a large part in this though aiding scientists in breeding, growing, observing, and finding resistant chestnut trees.

Check out the American Chestnut Foundation for more information on efforts to restore this species:

Fifty or so years ago we may have thought that the American Chestnut was extinct, or at least doomed to extinction.  Today however, there is great hope for the tree.  While still possible, it is unlikely that the tree will not go extinct.  We can currently say it really can't get much worse for this species and recovery is a very viable option.  Only time will tell, and as with most trees it will take a long time to grow these trees to see if they are able to grow and resist the blight.  Our efforts as humans often result in environmental destruction as we see with the american chestnut.  But the american chestnut also shows that hopefully, our careful efforts can also restore and benefit the natural world.  And there is great hope that song words, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" can once again be experienced by Americans.  Merry Christmas!


  1. MERRY CHRISTMAS! to you too.

    I've enjoyed reading your always-interesting blog this past year.


  2. Still a winter time tradition for me! Sometimes roasting on an open fire, sometimes a microwave, sometimes a toaster oven...but always 'roasting'! The smell takes me right back to childhood...

  3. Very cool. I have never met anyone who roasts chestnuts. I am guessing you purchase them from the grocery store through. Thanks!