The American chestnut has a very spiny seed capsule (called a burr) that will usually contain three nuts. They ripen and fall to the ground around the time of the first frost. (Photo by Timothy Van Vliet/Wikimedia Commons)
When Mel Tormé and Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in 1945, it was the middle of summer and they were just trying to “stay cool by thinking cool.” Little did they know that it would top the list of the all-time favorite Christmas songs 75 years later and be recorded by nearly twice that number of artists.

For most of us, it’s the Nat King Cole version we’re most familiar with, maybe because it was the first (in 1946) and no doubt is the one that gets played more often. We’re also familiar with most of the seasonal things mentioned in the song: Jack Frost nipping at your nose, yuletide carols being sung by a choir, folks dressed up like Eskimos, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Wait just a minute... when was the last time you roasted chestnuts? When was the last time you even ate chestnuts? And for that matter, when was the last time you ran across a chestnut tree?

People used to do this. You know they did, or Nat and all those other singers wouldn’t have been singing about it all these years. I’ve been around for 58 of them and I can’t say I’ve ever even seen a chestnut. Horse chestnuts (and their cousins, the buckeyes) don’t count. Even though they have a similar look, they aren’t even related to the American chestnut. And you can’t eat those.

The American chestnut tree used to be plentiful in North America, and especially in the eastern part of the United States. The nut, which could be used to make flour or prepared any number of ways, was enjoyed by Native Americans long before the Europeans or Asians introduced their species of chestnut to the continent.

The trees themselves were used to make wood products; in fact, for several hundred years, nearly all the homes east of the Mississippi river were made of chestnut wood. And then the blight hit.

Chestnut blight was first recognized in 1904, having most likely originated from popular Asian chestnut imports, which were mostly resistant to the fungus. Over the next 40 years, the blight took down nearly all the over four billion American chestnut trees in the U.S. So in 1945, when “The Christmas Song” was written, roasting chestnuts was becoming a cherished memory for many Americans.

The American Chestnut Foundation, along with several state DNRs, and a number of universities are working together to restore the American chestnut to its former greatness. Strides have been made in this regard by hybridizing blight-resistant Asian varieties with the American trees as well as through genetic engineering.

Currently, there are about 1,000 of the genetically engineered trees (called transgenic) growing in test sites that have proven resistant to the fungus, but government approval will be required before they will be allowed to grow in the wild.

Hybridized chestnut tree farms are in their infancy here and the U.S. only produces about 1% of the world’s edible chestnuts. Though you can buy American chestnut seedlings on a small scale for planting in your yard, most reputable nurseries will warn you that they are susceptible to chestnut blight and may not survive.

It appears that there will probably be an American chestnut tree produced in the next several years that is disease resistant, and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” may once again be a common holiday pastime. Until then, most of the nuts you’ll find for sale here are imported from Europe.

What does a roasted chestnut taste like? I have no idea, not having ever tasted one myself, but many say it’s much like mashed or sweet potatoes. I just might have to look for some and try them this year. And of course, this girl who has been growing an ash tree in her backyard for the last five years, now wants an American chestnut tree, too.

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