The American Chestnut and the Loss of a Fantastic American Honey

1-American Chestnut Pre-blight The American Chestnut, Pre-Blight!

Imagine arriving in North America as an early colonist in the 1700’s. The eastern United States was so vastly different than it is today. Instead of the sprawling cities and the huge tracks of tamed and managed land, this part of the world was an absolute wilderness. Even the remaining pieces of wild land we still have are so completely different from the pre-American landscape. Picture in your mind over four billion trees, nearly as large as Redwoods inhabiting the eastern interior from Maine to Georgia. This mountainous inland region stretching over two thousand miles was the land of the American Chestnut tree and this was timber country.

The wood harvested from immense stands of American Chestnut fueled the early growth of the American colonies, especially in the South. This incredible tree was a keystone species in eastern forests. It’s annual leaf fall was a primary soil builder. The chestnuts produced by these giants were a staple food resource for countless species. The dense and endless canopy of the Chestnut forest provided habitat for thousands of species of insects, birds, and arboreal mammals. The American Chestnut was the king of the eastern hardwoods and the structure of the temperate forest system absolutely depended on this mighty tree.

American chestnut American Chestnut tree in Pennsylvania.

The honey bee was no exception to the many species who made a living on and around the American Chestnut. The pollen and the nectar produced by these trees must have been an infinite bounty for the honey bee. The honey produced from the nectar of these trees was dark and rich with a smoky, nutty flavor and a somewhat bitter aftertaste. Given these qualities, I imagine this honey was packed full of antioxidants and minerals.

Historical accounts differ but sometime around the late 1800’s something terrible started to happen. A tiny fungus found the perfect host. The scientific name for this parasitic fungus is Cryphonectria parasitica. This fungus is not native to North America but finds its origin in Asia. It is speculated that C. parasitica  arrived in America as a passenger on some imported Japanese Chestnut trees that were cultivated in a nursery and sold widely across the northeastern U.S. Interestingly, the Japanese Chestnut varieties were immune to C. parasitica but served as a perfect vector or carrier for the disease causing organism. The blight that ensued may just well be the most dramatic hardwood species eradication ever seen in North America.

By 1940, the American Chestnut had been completely wiped out. In just a few short decades, millions of years of evolution and co-evolution had nearly been completely destroyed. The American Chestnut does still exist today in the Appalachian mountains but so does C. parasitica. The fungus allows the tree to grow for a few years and then kills it just before it’s reproductive age. This strategy allows the fungus to continue to live on a host that is in a vegetative cycle before the age of maturity. As a result, the tree never has the opportunity to produce new seeds, which prevents the species from establishing resistance through genomic modification. The fungus is effectively growing and harvesting the juvenile trees as a food resource.

sourwood Modern Day Sourwood Country

I grew up in the Appalachian region of Tennessee and I often think about these lost giants. Sourwood honey is the regional honey in this part of the country. I wonder if the loss of the Chestnut created a habitat opportunity for the Sourwood trees. I also wonder if I would have been raised on Chestnut honey rather than Sourwood honey. Sometimes when I’m hiking in Tennessee, I try to imagine the forest with the American Chestnut as the dominant tree species. When I close my eyes, I can almost feel these towering gaurdians of the temperate forest peering in through a window that slammed shut many years ago.

A close relative of the American Chestnut successfully grows across Europe. Italian beekeepers are notorious for their amazing Chestnut honey. I ordered a jar last year and it was fantastic! It’s definitely not as sweet as the Southern varieties I have eaten all my life but delicious none the less. The flavor is very nutty, spicy, and even a little smoky. And yes, it does have a slight bitter after-taste.

Another unique thing about the Chestnut honey is it’s high fructose to glucose sugar ratio. This is a fancy way to say that it does not crystallize easily, similar to our Tupelo honey. I love this quality in a honey because you can literally store it for years and it will not granulate. Of course in Europe this is no big deal because many Europeans prefer there honey granulated rather than liquid.

Here at Savannah Bee, we don’t carry any Chestnut honey. In fact, our outstanding Acacia honey is our only import, which also comes from Italy. You can find some really excellent Chestnut honey online if you are interested. Things to look for are phrases like 100% pure, organic, and raw. I also recommend reading the reviews of other customers. Since we can’t go back in time and sample the American Chestnut honey I think this may just be our best option!

Submitted By: Brantley Crowder