Michigan’s Leafy Residents: A Closer Look

American Chestnut leaves and rotting tree trunks

Michigan, a land of picturesque landscapes and diverse flora, is home to a fascinating array of trees. Among them, the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) once thrived abundantly in the southeastern part of the state. However, the 1930s brought a devastating blow in the form of the Chestnut Blight, a parasitic fungus that swept across Michigan, decimating most of these majestic trees. Today, the sight of fruiting American Chestnuts is a rare occurrence, with only a few small re-sprouts dotting the landscape.

Rediscovering a Hidden Gem

American Chestnut bark and trees

Amidst this bleak landscape, a ray of hope emerges. A friend recently stumbled upon a fruiting Chestnut tree in northern Oakland County. His keen eye for woody plants led him to believe that it was an American Chestnut, and he was right. Despite the odds, this hidden gem stands tall, representing the tenacity of its species.

The Misleading Namesake

Horse-chestnut leaves and fruit
Horse-chestnut buds and nuts

It’s essential to tread cautiously when identifying trees solely based on common names. Many reports of Chestnuts in Michigan actually refer to the unrelated Eurasian tree known as the Horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). This confusion highlights the importance of scientific nomenclature. Interestingly, one Michigan resident used to gather a bushel of Horse-chestnuts each year from a large tree in his yard, shipping them to Michigan State University. Eventually, he received a polite letter explaining that there was no need for further supply. The Horse-chestnut, with its opposite, palmately compound leaves and prominent sticky buds, stands as a separate entity from the true Chestnut.

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Look Beyond the Leaves

American Beech leaves
American Beech pointed buds and leaves

While American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) may resemble the Chestnut at first glance, upon closer inspection, subtle differences emerge. The parallel veins and coarse teeth of Beech leaves share similarities with the Chestnut, but finer teeth and bristles distinguish them. To truly discern the American Beech, one must observe its tight gray bark and long pointed leaf buds.

The Resemblance Game

Chinquapin Oak

The Chinquapin Oak, also known as Yellow Chestnut Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), bears a striking resemblance to the American Chestnut. However, a closer look reveals the pale-pubescent lower surface of its leaves and coarser tooth formation. Unlike the Chestnut, its teeth lack awls.

Chinese Chestnut
Chinese Chestnut

Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima) often finds itself planted as a substitute for the imperiled American Chestnut. This resilient species has proven resistant to the Chestnut Blight. Its pubescent leaf undersides and hairy buds set it apart. Chinese Chestnut leaves are smaller than their American counterparts and possess a squared-off base with fewer teeth.

Unique Traits of the American Chestnut

American Chestnut leaves
American Chestnut nut covers and nuts
American Chestnut twigs and nut spines

Smooth undersides, almost devoid of hair, distinguish the American Chestnut’s leaves. Its buds and nut spines share the same characteristic. The leaves taper at both ends, revealing a toothed structure that gracefully extends to the leaf base, ending in delicate awl-tips. Unlike its Chinese relative, the American Chestnut showcases larger leaves that embody its unique identity. For those seeking guidance in identifying the American Chestnut, the American Chestnut Foundation provides invaluable insights.

A Vanishing Beauty

Donald Peattie eloquently reminisces in his book, “A Natural History of Trees,” about the glorious sight of creamy white Chestnut blossoms adorning ancient trees on the slopes of Mount Mitchell. Sadly, those days are but a memory. The American Chestnut’s decline signifies a loss beyond measure.

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Michigan, with its resilient natural landscapes, serves as a testament to the intricate tapestry of life. Although the American Chestnut may no longer dominate the state’s forests, its legacy persists in the hearts of those who appreciate its worth.

Copyright 2020 by Donald Drife

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