The Hidden Tree

By: Lynn Wolfe


Ethan Allen Park shouldn’t hold many mysteries. This wooded refuge in urban Burlington is frequented by many knowledgeable naturalists who use the park as a lab to identify bryophytes, ferns, and angiosperms. It’s common to stumble across someone peering through a hand lens at the spores of a bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) or examining the seeds of enchanter’s-night shade (Circaea canadensis). As a community, we claim to know Ethan Allen Park. But can we ever truly know a place?

Although skilled naturalists have been visiting Ethan Allen Park for decades, they’ve managed to overlook one noteworthy species. Hidden among commonplace beech (Fagus grandifolia) and white pines (Pinus strobus) is one of the most legendary and majestic trees of our forests: an American chestnut (Castanea dentata). And it was discovered by a first grader on a school trip to the park.

While C.P. Smith Elementary School students were playing in the forest first grader Adrienne Stanley noticed a round spikey husk camouflaged among the leaf litter. Not knowing what is was, the bouncy girl with brown-haired gently picked up the prickly baseball-sized bur and brought it to her teacher, Shelley Spinner.

Shelley had never seen anything like the mystery husk before. She rotated it in her hand and wondered if perhaps it could be a hedgehog rolled up in a ball. Unable to locate a mouth or any legs, she quickly dismissed the idea. The class was intrigued by the unusual discovery, though, and made it their mission to identify the unfamiliar bur. They launched into action, looking in books, searching on the internet, and sending out photographs. It wasn’t long before they identified the husk of an American chestnut. When they returned to the park, they found the tree it had fallen from, standing tall in the canopy. Its very existence was remarkable, though it would once have been common.

A relic of our past forests, the American chestnut was the dominant canopy tree in the eastern forest before succumbing to chestnut blight, a lethal fungal disease, in the early 1900s. It was once distributed over millions of acres and out-competed most other forest trees for resources, reaching heights of 100 feet and diameters of 10 feet or more. The tree’s abundant, late-blooming, white blossoms made hillsides look as if they were covered in snow.

However, the most magnificent feature of this tree was its fruit. Each October when the chestnuts ripened, their prickly husk would split open to reveal the glimmering dark brown nuts within. These plentiful nuts coated the forest floor with delicious morsels for humans, turkeys, bears, white-tailed deer, and many other species.

The chestnut’s reign was cut short in 1904, when an Asian chestnut carrying the fungus that causes chestnut blight was brought to New York. The fungus swept through eastern forests, spreading up to fifty miles per year, infecting and killing the American chestnuts in its wake. By 1950, only a handful of chestnuts remained scattered across the east. Since that time, many researchers have dedicated themselves to breeding blight-resistant American chestnuts for reintroduction. For now, though, most of our wild chestnuts are feeble stump sprouts that die long before they can bear fruit. Remarkably, the chestnut tree in Ethan Allen Park has reached a diameter of 15 inches, and its bark remains unblemished. Perhaps it has some natural resistance, or perhaps it is just lucky.

With each passing generation, the once common memories of the American chestnut continue to fade. Thanks to the children’s natural curiosity and innate interest and wonder, this surviving chestnut is etching new memories in the minds of these young Vermonters. It offers a focal point for their outings and provides for hours of play. Students stack the prickly husks like layers of Velcro, pretend they are cooking a cauldron of warm bubbling chestnut soup, and peel back the spikey capsule to reveal the soft, velvety inner lining.

As naturalists, we tend to revisit the same areas time and again, leaning on our past knowledge and experiences to guide us through a landscape. This familiarity allows us to be confident in what we can expect to find. We gain comfort in our knowledge with each visit, and new discoveries become fewer and further between. The American chestnut in Ethan Allen Park is a wonderful reminder that even the most familiar forests can still hold secrets.

Too often we visit natural areas with agendas and expectations, hoping to hear the nasal peent of a woodcock or catch a particular flower in bloom. Encroaching deadlines and scheduling conflicts blur our vision, distracting us from potential new observations. Yet surprises still abound in seemingly familiar woods and meadows. Sometimes it takes a child’s eyes and a troubled tree to remind us how little we know a place.