Near-extinction makes chestnuts a relic of Christmas' past - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Near-extinction makes chestnuts a relic of Christmas' past

A basket hot chestnuts, prepared to sell on a market stall in Pamplona, northern Spain. Chestnuts in American supermarkets are likely European or Chinese varieties. (Source: AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos) A basket hot chestnuts, prepared to sell on a market stall in Pamplona, northern Spain. Chestnuts in American supermarkets are likely European or Chinese varieties. (Source: AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

(RNN) - If you've ever heard the holiday classic The Christmas Song, you've heard Nat King Cole give his famous ode to chestnuts with the phrase "chestnuts roasting over an open fire."

But what, exactly, are chestnuts and why are they hard to find? Thanks to a blight (a type of fungus), the staple of early 20th-century Christmas and winter traditions was nearly wiped out.

Chestnuts in The Christmas Song were a common snack food from the American chestnut tree. They were popular because, once upon a time, American chestnuts were the most common hardwood tree in much of the eastern United States.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the blight made its way to American shores from imported Asian trees. With no natural resistance, the American chestnut was unable to fight off the blight and the trees were quickly wiped out.

Despite this, a few trees in isolated and elevated places have managed to survive.

Scientists scour woods and forests by foot and air looking for potential survivors. The American Chestnut Foundation asks people who think they may find one to send in pictures and samples for testing.

Some surviving trees live in a cycle of death and regeneration, where the tree is infected with the blight, but the roots are healthy enough to grow new trunks after the main stem dies. However, these "new" trees all eventually succumb to the blight, killing off the growth every few decades and restarting the cycle.

A handful of others have managed to avoid infection so far, most notably groves of trees in Michigan and Wisconsin.

This month, NPR reported that scientists discovered a more than 100-foot tall, and possibly 100-year-old, surviving American chestnut tree in a forest in Maine. The American Chestnut Foundation plans to preserve the tree's DNA.

Several groups are working to restore the American chestnut to its previous habitat.

The American Chestnut Foundation is working on crossbreeding healthy American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts, which are highly blight resistant. They breed the trees back and forth in an incredibly slow, years-long process. The organization said 2 percent of Chinese chestnut DNA is enough to prevent the hybrids from succumbing to blight.

Others are taking different, faster approaches to restoring the chestnut. The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project is aiming to use genetic engineering to create an American chestnut resistant to the blight.

Although American chestnuts aren't available for roasting this Christmas, European and Chinese chestnuts are. European chestnuts are usually the variety of choice for roasting.

If you'd like to try your hand at the traditional Christmas treat, there are many recipes you can try. Typical recipes call for the shells of chestnuts to be scored with a knife and baked instead of roasted over a fire, either plain or with spices.

Copyright 2015 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved. 

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