Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Chestnut By Any Other Name

July 6, 2009

Another fabulously clear and sunny day! What else was there to do but to get that kayak into the water?

Concord is located at the junction of two rivers, the Sudbury and the Assabet, which join together to form the Concord River. Today the Sudbury was my destination, with a trip through Fair Haven Bay. When I was here in October, the wind came up in the afternoon, and the waves form pretty easily on the wide expanse of relatively shallow water.

Today the sky was completely clear and the water smooth as silk. At the put-in, I saw a weird contraption hanging into the water:

It was a harvester of some sort. Then I recalled what I saw here last year, covering almost the whole surface of the Bay:

the Dreaded Water Chestnut

It’s a nasty invasive that, among other things, makes paddling a real pain. It forms a mat that will yank the paddle right out of your hands. And forget about going close to the shoreline. Of course it is much more than an inconvenience for the local flora and fauna.

Fortunately, in Moreau Lake, it has not been spotted yet. It spreads by way of nasty-looking floating seedpods which attach to boat trailers.

Lake George Association has a good educational program at local marinas about this and other aquatic invasives which can travel from state to state this way.

Here in Concord, it is apparently rampant enough to warrant the Department of Public Works here to have a contraption that looks like something out of a Mark Twain nightmare:

When I arrived downstream at the mouth of the bay, there was this vessel, ker-chogging loudly around the edges of the bay, mowing a swath through the thick layer of water chestnut and conveying it into its hold, to be hauled out in a dump truck later.

My vision of a bucolic float through the bay was mowed down just as neatly.

So far this trip was becoming something of a Grim Reality Check. Hey, Sue, welcome to 2009 !

Well, it’s good to know that at least something is being done to try to restore the balance; a balance that, in this case, was upset by humans in the first place.

The machine was on the east side of the bay, so I kept to the left and continued down the placid Sudbury River. There was a rocky point along the western shore (Lee’s Cliff?) (Was this where Henry T. waited out a thunderstorm ashore, under his overturned boat ?)

Saw several blue herons, a green heron, a Canada goose family. The shoreline growth was mostly button bush, and in other places was a lush mix.

Painted turtles by the dozens ducked back into the water at my approach, sometimes just a swirl in the duckweed the only evidence of them. Pickerel weed was just opening its spikes, and water lilies were everywhere. Clouds were forming in the heat of the day, and that just made the scenery more interesting, as they were mirrored in the smooth surface of the water.

After turning about, I returned along the east shore, under Fair Haven Hill - one of Thoreau’s favorite places to watch sunsets and moonlight on the Bay. Today numerous inobtrusive foot trails traverse the wooded ridge. One path comes steeply down to the river’s edge, and it was here that I pulled ashore to stretch my legs and just admire the view.

The big noisy chestnut-eating machine was gone. The only sounds were the yawp of a heron on the river before me, a thrush song in the woods behind me, and the peculiar lip-smacking noise that seemed to come from the buttonbushes growing at the river’s edge.

Returning, I continued a short way upriver, past the put-in spot. I was getting sunburned, and it was time to call it a day. Turning about – after looking at lilies "just one more time" – I looked up to the north shore and saw a sight that made my jaw drop:

It was a tall chestnut tree, in full bloom! The sight of it took my breath away – this was not supposed to be happening – they were almost extinct in this area! I took lots of photos, and for some time, just sat floating in the boat, gazing at this miraculous sight. The flower spikes covered the tree in white dreadlocks.

After hauling out, still marveling at this good fortune, I took a different road back to the inn. Suddenly I pulled the car over – there, in the dooryard of a very old homestead, was

ANOTHER chestnut tree in full bloom!

Now anyone with half a brain would have figured it out by now, but no, I was just too entranced.

This one was about 40 feet tall, but wide. Gnarled low-hanging branches practically drooped to the ground, festooned with fuzzy white blooms. The ground below this ancient-looking tree was covered with the empty husks of burrs. I got out of the car, camera in hand. As I approached the tree, it seemed to be humming. There were bees and bee-lets of all sorts, on almost every bloom.

There was an indescribable scent in the air, though not as funky as some have described. The leaves seemed very glossy on the topside, paler beneath. And little proto-burrs were already forming.

Weird smell or no, I was as intoxicated as those bees for the whole ride back.
Now, whom could I contact about this incredible sighting? It must be reported!
TWO blooming, blight-resistant chestnut trees – in one day!

Later that evening, I looked at the photos on the laptop. It was time to shift from drunken-bee to sober-scientist mode. Though they were toothed, those leaves did not really have the deep scalloped edge if the American Chestnuts I’ve seen. And they were pretty dark and glossy. Hmm.

Time for the buzzkill. After doing a little internet research, most likely these trees were JAPANESE chestnuts. They are sometimes blight-resistant and had been introduced as an orchard tree in America in the 1870s.

Here’s one interesting link:

Well, it was fun while it lasted. One can only imagine a hillside of magnificent American Chestnut trees in bloom. Maybe we’ll live to see that again.


  1. It was certainly a chestnutty day for you! Pity they turned out to be the "wrong" chestnuts, but at least the bees were happy. And you got to see some water chestnut remediation in action - a good sight, even if the reason for it having to be there was not so good.

  2. We do hope that the time comes when American Chestnuts are once again seen growing in the woods and hills. We really enjoyed learning about the water chestnut as well -- it's certainly invasive, but we found ourselves appreciating the remarkable appearance of the seed pods.