Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree
Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree

Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree

by Sally M. Walker

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American chestnut trees were once found far and wide in North America's eastern forests. They towered up to one hundred feet tall, providing food and shelter for people and animals alike. For many, life without the chestnut seemed unimaginable—until disaster struck in the early 1900s.

What began as a wound in the bark of a few trees soon turned to an unstoppable killing force. An unknown blight was wiping out the American chestnut, and scientists felt powerless to prevent it.

But the story doesn't end there. Today, the American chestnut is making a comeback. Narrative nonfiction master Sally M. Walker tells a tale of loss, restoration, and the triumph of human ingenuity in this beautifully photographed middle-grade book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250125248
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 03/06/2018
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 699,378
File size: 123 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

Sally M. Walker is the author of Champion, a JLG selection and one of NCTE's 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor Books. She is also the author of ALA Notable Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917, the acclaimed picture book Winnie, and Secrets of a Civil War Submarine, which was awarded a Sibert Medal. She lives in Illinois.

Sally M Walker is the author of Champion, a JLG selection, one of NCTE's 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor Books, and a 2019 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book. She is also the author of ALA Notable Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917; the acclaimed picture book Winnie; and Secrets of a Civil War Submarine, which was awarded a Sibert Medal. She lives in Illinois.

Read an Excerpt



Have you ever climbed a tree? Have you ever breathed in the spicy scent of pine trees or looked closely at a leaf?

Hermann Merkel was a boy who loved being around trees. He loved them so much that when he grew up, caring for trees became his job. Even before the New York Zoological Park hired Merkel in 1898 to be its chief forester, he could identify every tree in the park — and there were more than a thousand of them — by the shape of its leaves and the look of its bark. The trees were as familiar to him as the people in his neighborhood. Merkel spent hundreds of hours walking the park's many paths, doing what he liked to do most: looking at trees. The park's 1,500 American chestnut trees were among his favorites. Some of them had trunks so big that Merkel's outstretched arms couldn't completely encircle them. It took two — if not three — people holding hands to do it. Every year on hot summer days, Merkel cooled off in the shade of these trees. Every year after winter frosts arrived, he ate the trees' roasted chestnuts as a sweet, crunchy snack. Every year, that is, until 1904, when disaster struck.

One summer day that year, Merkel found ugly wounds on the trunks of some of his splendid chestnut trees. Their bark had split open and, as with a serious cut in a human's skin, he could see the tissue beneath. When he looked toward the treetops, he saw that the leaves on certain branches had wilted and turned brown. Concerned, Merkel checked other trees: the oaks, the locusts, the birches. All of them looked fine. Only the chestnut trees were hurt. Merkel was unsure what was happening, but it looked like a blight, a disease. He kept a close eye on the chestnut trees and waited to see what would happen next.

The situation got worse.

Within days, the injured bark encircled the branches and trunks. Then pinhead-sized orange bumps appeared in the areas near the damaged bark. Within weeks of their appearance, all the affected branches died. Merkel didn't know what was attacking his chestnut trees, but he hoped that the approaching winter's cold temperatures would stop it.

Unfortunately, the mysterious blight dashed his hopes the following spring. The disease remained. Even worse, it spread. It killed American chestnut seedlings sprouting in the park's greenhouse. It infected chestnut saplings in the tree nursery outside. It attacked the enormous trunks of hundred-year-old chestnut trees. Determined to save them, Merkel cut off the infected branches. He sprayed the trunks with liquids formulated to kill tree diseases. Nothing halted the blight. One after another, the park's magnificent chestnut trees began to die.

Desperate for help, Merkel contacted William Murrill, a scientist at the nearby New York Botanical Garden. Perhaps Murrill would know what was killing Merkel's trees. Maybe he could save them.


Murrill couldn't help until he identified the culprit. The orange bumps that surrounded the ugly wounds gave him an important clue. He thought they looked like the reproductive parts of a fungus. Fungi are organisms that live and grow on organic matter such as plants and animals. This worried Murrill because he knew that some fungi are harmful, even deadly, to other forms of life.

To confirm his suspicions, Murrill collected material from the trees' wounds and put it on a nutritious gel inside a shallow glass container called a petri dish. He covered the dish and waited. Within days, tiny white threads — the sign of a growing fungus — reached across the gel. As days passed, the fungus spread; its color changed from white to yellow. When the fungus was completely grown, it started reproducing. The reproductive parts of the fungus turned a deep orange — the same color as the tiny bumps that Merkel had found on the park's chestnut trees. Murrill had solved the first mystery: A fungus was causing the blight.

Meanwhile, more of the park's chestnut trees were getting sick. But until Murrill figured out how the fungus got inside the trees, he couldn't give Merkel advice on how to stop it. Searching for a way to fight the fungus, Murrill purposely gave the blight to some healthy young chestnut trees in his greenhouse. He smeared a small amount of the blight fungus on their bark. Several weeks passed. Nothing happened.

Puzzled, Murrill tried again. This time he scraped a hole in the trees' bark and exposed the tissue beneath. Then he put the fungus directly into the small wounds. Within four to six weeks, all the branches above the wound sites were dead. That solved the second mystery: Any wound that exposed the tissue layer beneath the bark — a scratch from a squirrel's claw, a hole gouged by a woodpecker, a break caused by the wind snapping off a branch — provided a doorway for the fungus to reach the tree's inner tissue.


How could a tiny fungus kill a gigantic tree? The answer lies beneath the bark. In a sense, a tree resembles the human body. Its trunk encases the tree's internal tissues in much the same way that the trunk of your body surrounds your heart, liver, and other internal organs. Like your arms, a chestnut tree's branches are extensions off its trunk. Bark, the trunk's outermost covering, is the tree's skin. It protects the tree from pests and diseases and insulates it from extreme weather conditions.

Three layers of tissue lie just under the bark. They control how healthy the tree is and how well it grows. Two of the layers are made of tubular vessels — like super-thin drinking straws. One layer carries nutrients and water from the leaves down to the roots. The other transports nutrients that are absorbed by the tree's roots up to the branches and leaves.

Between the two nutrient transport layers is the third layer, a paper-thin sheet of cells called the cambium. The cambium is very important because it produces the cells that a tree needs to grow. When a large area of the cambium is damaged, it is a severe injury, and death can occur.

Spotting the ugly wounds on a chestnut tree's branches and trunk was easy. But Murrill was unable to solve the third mystery — how the fungus killed the tree — until he looked at the tissue beneath the bark. There he saw that the blight fungus's microscopic threads had fanned out beneath the bark as they sought water and food. The thready network spread throughout the cambium until it encircled the trunk or a branch. Encircling, or girdling, a trunk or branch in this way cuts off the tree's food-supply lines. The parts of the chestnut tree beyond the girdled area starved to death. Appalled, Murrill realized that the fungus was the most destructive kind of parasite — one that killed its host, the plant or animal it grew on. Although he had identified the culprit and discovered how it killed chestnut trees, Murrill was disappointed that he could not find a way to stop it. The only advice he could offer Merkel was to cut down and burn the sickened trees to keep the fungus from spreading.

In 1906, Murrill wrote, "My observations ... have led me to take a gloomy view regarding the immediate future of the chestnut [tree]. The disease seems destined to run its course ... and it will hardly be safe to plant young trees while the danger of infection is so great." Throughout the summer he watched as Hermann Merkel lost heart. "I believe he considers the condition quite hopeless. ... Practically all the chestnut trees within [Merkel's] jurisdiction appear to be dying rapidly. Even the young trees in the nursery [at the zoo] have been either entirely killed or rendered worthless by the fungus."

By 1911, only two of the 1,500 chestnut trees that had graced the grounds of the New York Zoological Park remained. And foresters, botanists, and chestnut growers in neighboring states reported more alarming news: The blight had spread and was killing the American chestnut trees in their areas, too. Some of them followed Murrill's advice. They cut and burned infected trees. Some experimented with special sprays created to kill fungi. Others resorted to home remedies, such as pouring poison on chestnut tree roots or boring holes into the trunks and filling them with iron nails or sulfur. Nothing worked.

Were American chestnut trees doomed? And why were people so concerned?



Before the blight struck, American chestnut trees had dominated North America's eastern forests for more than 12,000 years. They towered up to 100 feet tall. Chestnut trees were the forest elders, some living 600 years or even longer. In spring, winds churned their cream-colored catkins into frothy waves at the top of the forest canopy. On their branches during the summer, prickly green burs swelled around the nuts that grew within these envelopes. In autumn, surrounded by a blaze of yellow leaves, the burs split open and rained mahogany-colored nuts on the forest floor.

For thousands of years, American chestnut trees were a combination supermarket, drugstore, and lumberyard for American Indians, who ate the nuts raw, roasted, stewed, and ground into flour.

In the Southeast, the Cherokee boiled the leaves into medicines for heart trouble, stomach complaints, and coughs. They packed chestnut leaves into poultices for sores. Cherokee builders split the wood into shingles for their homes. In the Northeast, the Iroquois treated rheumatism with chestnut leaves and made hair tonic with oil from the nuts. Mothers soothed their babies' chafed skin with chestnut wood ground to a soft powder. Also in the Northeast, Lenape men felled American chestnut trees and crafted the trunks into dugout canoes. Every part of the tree benefited the people who lived nearby.

Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto sought gold when he and his men arrived in North America in 1539. Although they didn't find that precious metal in the Appalachian Mountains, they found plenty of chestnut trees. "Where there be mountaines, there be chestnuts," wrote one of the members of the expedition. In those days, from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Mississippi, one-fourth of the forests' hardwood trees were American chestnut.

European colonists flooded America during the next 200 years. They quickly realized that American chestnut logs, planks, and rails lasted a long time. Tannin, a chemical compound found in certain kinds of wood, makes the wood highly resistant to decay. Chestnut wood contains a lot of tannin. In 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington that some of the mountain lands near his home in Virginia had been "inclosed with rail fences, which do not last long (except where they are of chestnut)." Unlike other wood fences, chestnut fences stood firm, often for more than 100 years.


In January 1876, Pennsylvania farmer Jacob Klinck and his employees were felling a large American chestnut. When the saw was deep inside the tree's six-foot diameter trunk, its teeth suddenly rasped against something harder than wood. Klinck peered into the cut and saw a metallic glint. Worried that it might be an explosive device that had become embedded in the trunk during a Civil War skirmish, Klinck told his men to cut into the trunk from the other side to avoid the metal object.

When the tree finally toppled, gold glittered in the sunlight — a watch and key, two pencil boxes, and a necklace! The watch's cover was inscribed with the date 1740. How had the gold items gotten inside the tree? Klinck could only guess. He knew that a colonial mansion had once stood nearby. Taking into account the age of the watch, Klinck speculated that 100 years earlier, the items had been buried at the base of the tree to hide them from marauders during the Revolutionary War. There they'd been forgotten, and as the years passed, the tree's bark had grown around the objects. Although the hands of the watch had rusted off, its timing mechanism still worked. After having the hands replaced, Klinck happily showed his fancy "new" timepiece to all who were interested.

Sawyers prized the trees' long, straight trunks that stretched tens of feet skyward before branching. The trunks were not only straight but also enormous. In 1919, a farmer in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, needed 110 pounds of dynamite to blast the stump of a 300-year-old chestnut tree out of the ground. Reportedly, the stump's circumference measured 34 feet, 6 inches. While most chestnut trees did not reach that gargantuan size, many had circumferences of 15 or more feet. Colonists built homes, barns, furniture, and musical instruments from American chestnut wood. They buried their dead in chestnut caskets.

The trees' nuts were treasures of a different sort. Unlike oaks and other nut-bearing trees, the American chestnut reliably produced a crop of nuts every year; they were a valuable food source. How plentiful were the nuts? Very large trees could produce 10 or more bushels, or so people said. But people in rural areas, particularly in Appalachia, also counted on the annual harvest for another reason. Georgia resident Noel Moore recalled seeing whole families — even the children — hauling sacks of chestnuts into the town where he lived in the early 1900s. There, they bartered with shopkeepers for items such as flour, sugar, shoes, and clothes. According to some chestnut growers of the time, a chestnut orchard was "more profitable than many apple orchards."

Before the blight, American chestnut trees were more than just a country tree. Widely planted in cities, they shaded many streets. While city dwellers benefited from the trees' beauty, people everywhere also relied on them in another way, perhaps without realizing it. Tannin, the chemical that slows the decay of wood, is used to tan leather. In the late 1800s, America's leather industry treated more than half the leather it produced with tannins extracted from the bark and wood of chestnut trees. In a sense, anyone who wore leather goods "knew" the American chestnut.

During the 1800s, people streamed from the eastern half of the United States into the western territories already occupied by Mexicans and American Indians. These newcomers relentlessly pushed the boundary of the United States to the Pacific coast. As they did, the wood from American chestnut trees was a crucial part of the expanding nation's infrastructure. Because it was rot resistant, it was the preferred wood for railroad ties and telegraph poles, components of the new technologies that connected distant regions of the growing country. The invention of the telephone spurred further demand for chestnut logs because they were used for telephone poles, too.

American chestnut trees were also important to animals. The nutritious nuts filled the bellies of bears, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, mice, and voles. Birds — crows, blue jays, and wild turkeys — ate them, too. When the blight arrived, it dealt a serious blow to the forests' food chain. As much as 34% of the nuts these creatures had been eating vanished. Imagine how it would be if you went to a grocery store and discovered that more than one-third of the food you normally ate had disappeared.

Because it touched so many different lives, the chestnut tree was an American icon.

And then as the 19th century drew to a close, a tiny invader piggybacked its way across the Pacific Ocean from Asia to the United States. Silently, the fungus that Merkel and Murrill encountered at the zoological park spread from plant nurseries into parks and gardens, tocity streets, and finally into forests. In less than 50 years, nearly four billion American chestnut trees became brittle skeletons. Singlehandedly, this small troublemaker, called the chestnut blight, changed the environment of North America's eastern forests and disrupted the lives of countless people and animals.

Try as they might, no one could conquer the blight. Then scientists had an idea: If someone could locate the original source of the fungus, maybe it would provide clues on what could be done to stop it.


Excerpted from "Champion"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Sally M. Walker.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Disaster!,
2. A Forest Giant,
3. Seeking the Source,
4. An Eyebrow-Raising Discovery,
5. Midwestern Survivors,
6. It's in the Genes,
7. High-Tech Armor,
8. Restoration,
Author's Note,
Appendix A: Scientific Classification,
Appendix B: A Nutty Smorgasbord,
Appendix C: Chestnuts at School,
Appendix D: Under a Spreading Chestnut Tree,
Source Notes,
Select Bibliography,
Image Credits,
About the Author,

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