Abstract Aim The character and distribution of American chestnut (Castanea dentata) populations in New England are analysed to identify the extent to which the introduced chestnut blight and historic land use practices have affected chestnut distribution and life history.
Location The study focuses on chestnut in Connecticut and Massachusetts but includes analysis of data related to other Castanea species in North America and Europe.
Methods The ecology and palaeoecology of chestnut is investigated using a range of techniques, including examination of the growth form of chestnut trees in plantations located away from blight, mapping of chestnut sprouts and blight-killed trees at various locations, anatomical examination of chestnut stems, analysis of early forestry practices, identification of changes in the relative abundance of chestnut pollen in Holocene lake sediments and comparison of American chestnut with other Castanea species.
Results Examination of chestnut sprouts surviving in the former range of that species shows that most sprouts originated from suppressed seedlings and that environmental factors severely limited the survival of sprouts from large blight-killed trees. Palynological data show that chestnut was either present in very low populations or entirely absent from New England and only became abundant after about 2500 years ago. All factors suggest that chestnut abundance is related to the natural disturbance cycle, while human-induced transformations of the landscape and the introduction of chestnut blight have further transformed the character of chestnut in New England.
Main conclusions Most surviving chestnut sprouts in New England forests represent old seedlings that have continued to re-sprout since establishment before the introduction of blight nearly 100 years ago. The growth form of these sprouts ensures a minimal substrate of bark tissue for blight establishment so that blight has a relatively minor effect on seedling–sprout survival. The identification of modern chestnut sprouts as old seedlings indicates that the observed distribution of sprouts in New England woodlands is strongly influenced by land use conditions and especially field abandonment at the time when chestnut blight arrived from its point of introduction.