The tree, found by a U.S. Forest Service worker two years ago, was recognized last week as the largest of its kind in the state and an example that has become rare in America since a disease nearly wiped out the species beginning in 1900.
The American chestnut tree, known for being strong, light and straight-grained, was once ubiquitous in the eastern United States and was used to build everything from musical instruments to railroad ties, but the past 100 years have not been kind to the tree. The species that once routinely reached 100 feet in height now grows to little more than a 5-foot shrub before dying because of an Asian fungus against which the American tree has no natural defense.
This is why Scott Stephens, a forest technician with the U.S. Forest Service, was surprised when he found chestnuts on the ground while mapping out a timber sale in the middle of the Talladega National Forest two years ago.
"I just accidentally found the tree," he said of the specimen that, at 74 feet tall and 28 inches thick is now an Alabama "champion tree," in other words the biggest of its kind in the state.
The heartiness of this tree has drawn the attention of the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1983 to help the native chestnut overcome the fungal blight and make a comeback.
The blight decimated the species and in 40 years had killed trees from New England to the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, according to the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia.
Stephens said the Chestnut Foundation took pollen from the state champion tree for use in its research to battle the blight.
"A chestnut tree, just finding one is a rarity in itself," said Glenn Berry, 61, a Heflin resident and retired forester, who found a state-record dogwood this year.
Despite the efforts of the foundation and scientists who have been working for decades to save it, the typical American chestnut continues to succumb to the blight, but the tree's future prospects are improving.
The Chestnut Foundation has about 34,000 trees on a 150-acre research farm, and the University of Georgia has announced what it hopes will be a breakthrough in saving the tree.
The Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources has developed what it calls an anti-fungal gene that it is now testing.
"The gene-transfer system described in the new paper has already been used to produce some trees with genes that may confer resistance to the fungal disease, and ultimately could be used to help restore the tree to our eastern forests," said Scott Merkle, a professor of forest biology, in a statement from the school.
The Talladega chestnut was one of 24 champion trees that made it into Alabama's record book this year. Tracking of the state's largest trees started in 1970, modeled after a national program run by American Forests, a nonprofit conservation group.
While the tree Stephens found is the biggest in Alabama, it is far from a national title just yet. The American chestnut record tree, at 70 feet tall, is 4 feet shorter than the Alabama champion, but much broader, a hefty 288 inches around, enough to keep the Clarkston, Wash., tree in the lead for the foreseeable future.
Guesses on the Alabama tree's age range from 25 to 40 years, but no one is certain.
'We never bored it to get an age on it because we didn't want to put a hole in it," Stephens said.