LOVELL — It’s official, for now — North America’s tallest known American chestnut tree is growing in a protected forest in Lovell.

Officials from The American Chestnut Foundation came all the way from Asheville, N.C., to be present for the official measuring ceremony in a media event on Wednesday. They found the tree to be 115 feet high, at least 20 feet higher than the closest known counterpart east of the Mississippi, which happens to be in Hebron and stands 95 feet tall.

While the height of the Lovell chestnut tree is impressive and will earn the tree a place in the Big Tree registry, it falls short of being named the largest chestnut tree in the country, state or even the county. The honor of being named one of the largest trees in the Big Tree Program’s categories for those geographical regions goes to trees that earn enough points based on a formula that figures in circumference, crown and height — and the Lovell chestnut tree does not fill all three of those requirements.

Though the Lovell chestnut is tall, it is relatively thin, with a circumference of 4 feet, 1.3 inches. The tree grows in a stand of tall pines on property bequeathed to the University of Maine Foundation from the Volk family, which owned the land for more than 100 years. The tall pines, which provide support and are probably part of the reason the lone chestnut has been able to grow to such heights, also are likely the reason the chestnut has remained so thin over the past century.

It’s impossible to accurately date the chestnut without a wood-boring test, but such a test would only create an entry point for blight and disease to enter the tree, so officials said they would refrain from taking such a sample.

Local landowner and executive director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust Tom Henderson was able to provide some insight as to the approximate age of the chestnut tree.

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“This was all farm until 1898,” Henderson said. “Every one of these pine trees is less than that old. So, it’s clearly got to be almost as old as the pines to keep up with the height, but these pines can’t be more than 120 years old.” 

Around 1900, when the Lovell tree was likely barely more than a sapling, there were 4 billion American chestnut trees in the Appalachian Mountain states from Maine to Alabama. One in four trees in the Appalachians was an American chestnut. In the early 1900s, a chestnut blight came to America, likely on Japanese or Chinese chestnuts that were resistant to the fungus they carried. It was devastating to the American chestnut population, however, and nearly led to the tree’s extinction in North America.

So, the finding of this particular tree, one that is tall and healthy and has managed to live through the blight infestation all these years, is much more significant than the tree being the tallest in the land.

“It’s such a positive story, finding something we thought was lost forever,” said Lisa Thomson, president and CEO of The American Chestnut Foundation.

Brian Roth, who works for the University of Maine in its Cooperative Forestry Research Unit, spotted the tree from the air while he and a graduate student were searching for chestnut trees by plane. They flew over stands of trees in areas that had the right soil and climate conditions to support chestnuts.

Roth said finding the tree from the air took planning and timing.

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“In July, when nothing else is blooming, this tree will have a large amount of white flowers in its crown,” Roth said. “The old-timers talk about the hillside in the Appalachian Mountains being covered in flowers as if it was snow. And so we were able to key in on the particular week when these were blooming and flew around looking at these areas where we’d expect to find them, and we did find this tree.”

He added, “We made a mark on the GPS when we were flying over. After that, back to the lab, find out who the landowner is, and get permission to come on the property and take a look and see if it is actually a chestnut that we were hoping to find.” 

In 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation organized in an attempt to restore American chestnuts to the landscape. The trees provide edible chestnuts, a superfood, and are considered an excellent source of nutrition for a variety of wildlife, according to a news release from the foundation.

Chestnut wood is straight and rot-resistant, and because the trees grow quickly, they store large amounts of carbon, which helps to mitigate the effects of global warming. The foundation is conducting research to create blight-resistant trees and reintroduce them into the forests, and to provide a road map of sorts for the same type of restoration efforts for other tree species that have suffered similar fates, such as the American elm, according to the release.

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