Sometimes in life it is the bad things that happen that really teach us lessons we otherwise would never have learned. In this case, I am talking about a 180-year-old barn with a lot of character. It was in sad shape when I bought the property – or at least one side of it was. A few months ago, I noticed one of the walls was starting to cave in! This began my lesson on the American Chestnut. 

A good portion of the rotted 7×7 barn post that was cut out during my recent barn-saving repair. Photo by mrl2022.

The American Chestnut used to be plentiful in the American landscape. It was roughly found from Maine to Louisiana, staying away from the southeastern coastal United States. Here in Connecticut, it was plentiful. My barn was built largely out of Chestnut, as were many in the countryside. Long before I was responsible for it, water infiltration and termites took out a back-corner post and two of the main structural beams. Only something built in the mid-1800s could still be standing given that description. I am part of the way through replacing the missing and/or rotten framework. It was during this time that I developed a respect for this species of tree.

Even though there were beams over half way rotten or eaten, they were still incredibly strong.  From my observation, the wood does not behave the same way as other modern-day lumber.  Even when only one third of the beams are left, it was extremely difficult to cut through. It is a very hard, dense, strong, and most of all a highly rot resistant wood. In fact, there are pieces that are in contact with the ground that are still solid in both my barn and house. Now I have no way of knowing for sure if some of the ground pieces were replaced, but I do not see any evidence of it.

Even though the wood was largely rotten and riddled with insect damage, it was the hardest wood the author ever had to cut through. Photo by mrl2022.

The American Chestnut was used for building houses, barns, fence posts, animal housing, furniture, and just about anything else one can imagine. The bark is reportedly medicinal for coughs, arthritis, and a sore throat. The chestnuts themselves, like a famous holiday song suggests, were good to eat when roasted over an open fire. I have read about farmers turning their cattle and hogs loose in the forest in the fall to enjoy the fallen nuts. I can only imagine how many native wild animals used it as a food source as well. All in all, it seemed like the absolutely perfect tree. Then, in the early to mid-1900s, the Chestnut Blight wiped out most of them. It is a type of fungus that kills the above-ground portion of the tree. Many times, the roots below ground remain alive. They send up shoots that only live five or ten years max before they too die off. This stump sprouting is another beautiful aspect of this tree species. When they were cut down for lumber, they would simply send up another shoot that would grow into a beautiful tree a number of years later. You did not even have to replant it! 

There is hope, however. There are different organizations and teams of scientists working to bring it back. Some are looking for disease resistant varieties and trying to selectively breed them, while others are trying to genetically engineer resistance to the blight by introducing a gene from a type of grass. Some purists resist such genetic tampering, but I believe the ends will justify the means. There are plans to freely distribute the trees to anyone who wants one once there is a stockpile of resistant specimens ready to go.

So, this brings me to the point of my story. The loss of the American Chestnut was not just an ecological disaster, but one that hit us humans hard as well. We lost one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, species of tree in this part of the country. As such, humans were forced to replace what nature had provided for us with pressure treated lumber. Pressure treated lumber is treated chemically, under pressure, to produce a product that is rot and insect resistant. It has gone through a number of formula changes over the years. There has been great concern over what chemicals were used in the process. In the past, arsenic was the main ingredient in the wood treatment, but copper is now the main ingredient used (except in marine applications due to toxicity to marine life). Either way, boards that are rated for ground contact contain much higher levels of the chemical preservatives. The newer formulation does not possess the same risk as the old. It can be used for playscapes and furniture, but is not recommended for food contact. This leaves a bit of a gray area when we consider its use in raised garden beds or chicken coops. Much of the school of thought says that it is generally safe to use, but I don’t use it for these purposes. So many times, something thought to be safe ends up not being so. It is extremely difficult to determine what amount of leaching of the chemical preservatives does enter your garden soil, and how far they may migrate from the source. A lot will depend on the various soil properties, chemistry, hydrology, and other biotic and abiotic factors. Being that plants indiscriminately take up elements from their surroundings, you could be eating some of the preservatives. Chickens tend to scratch up the soil and move it all around, so they could be coming into contact with the preservatives as well. If you eat the birds and/or their eggs, you could be exposed so some small levels. Remember that these chemicals are actually toxic to life.  That is why the wood isn’t eaten by insects or rotted by bacteria or fungi. I am in no way trying to alarm anyone or imply that there is an enormous danger. I do know many people who have used it in agriculture, and it is generally considered safe to use in these manners.

I personally use some kind of alternative for anything I will consume, like vegetables and chicken eggs. There are a number of rot resistant woods on the market that you can use in place of treated lumber. They are not nearly as rot resistant as Chestnut, but they have varying levels of resistance. By and far the best of the remaining woods is Cedar. This can last an extremely long time. The downside is the exorbitant cost. I used to use it in certain instances, but since the lumber price hikes during COVID, I have not seen this being a feasible option. According to a manager at a local big box lumber store, the company does not stock cedar anymore due to the price – consumers and just not willing to pay that much. Redwood, cypress, and locust are also better at resisting rot, but they can be more costly and harder to come by as well. You will have to price things out if you have a project in mind. Lumber prices fluctuate frequently. 

My recommendation for raised garden beds and chicken coops is Douglas Fir. This wood is somewhat rot resistant. This is the slightly red colored wood you will see in most box stores. It is widely used in construction. I have used it in ground contact for a number of animal housing projects and got 15 years or more out of it before it started to significantly break down and need replacing. I have done this in a number of locations and soil types, both wet and dry, and have had really good luck. The advantages are much lower cost, it is readily available, there is no risk of chemical consumption, and it has a decent life expectancy. Couple this with the statistic about how often people move, and you are more likely to sell your home before you would have had to replace your chicken coop or raised garden beds. Even if you stay put, you most likely will only replace the wood once or twice. The only exception I make to this rule is fence posts and barn posts and beams. These I see as structural components, and here the greatest risk would be failure of the lumber components. As such, I used treated lumber in these places.

Douglas Fir being used in a ground-contact situation for a chicken coop. The author gets about 15 years out of the wood used like this. Photo by mrl2022.

Overall, you have to decide what is best for your particular situation. There are many factors that go into picking the right wood product for the job. Cost, aesthetics, longevity, type of use, and years of expected use are just a few. I really hope science can figure out a successful, permanent solution to the Chestnut Blight. It would be great to have a future where our children can use American Chestnut trees the way our forefathers did.   

Matt Lisy

Star Chickweed blooming in May Connecticut College woodland garden

Among the changing months, May stands the sweetest, and in fairest colors dressed.”

James Thomson

For good or bad, nature has its own comprehensive coordination of flora and fauna, and all play the perfect instrument in the classical themes of nature. Mozart in his glory had nothing compared to nature and its symphony of birdsong, and Monet has an inferior palette to that which nature offers. In May, nature is at its beginning and its best is yet to come.

Red oak flowers

Pin cherry is a native small tree that occurs in sandy clearings, along shorelines of ponds and lakes, often with aspen and white birch. It has a straight trunk with shiny reddish-brown to grayish-brown bark with numerous horizontal lenticels. Another tree with interesting bark is the striped maple, Acer pennsylvanicum. This maple is aptly named for its colorful green and cream colored stripes on the trunks of younger trees.

Pin cherry bark
Bark of a young striped maple trunk

In mid- May I took a trip to New London to visit the Edgerton and Stengel woodland wildflower garden at Connecticut College. In May there are creeping phlox, tiarella, swamp azaleas, trilliums, shooting stars, star chickweed, Virginia bluebells and many other woodland plants in bloom. Pitcher plants in the bog were showing signs of flowering.

Pitcher plant ready to bloom

Before sunrise recently, there was a peculiar pink, upright band in the sky, which turned out to be one end of a rainbow. It lasted a good 20 minutes and was an interesting start to the day. Later a line of thunderheads moved in, but no rain was in the mix in our area. In the afternoon in mid-May It looked like a rainstorm was happening just across the Thames River in new London, but it was actually a fog bank rolling in along the eastern shore.

Pre-dawn rainbow

While birding for the Audubon spring census, my sister and I came across two species of rare violets classified in Connecticut as  rare and endangered species. Viola enduca, or hook-spurred violet was one of them. This purple-flowered violets bears a slight resemblance to a bearded iris in that its lower side petals are bearded. The second species was Viola renifolia, the kidney-leaved violet, which has a sweet white flower with deep purple striping.

Rare Viola anduca hook-spurred violet
Kidney-leaved violet

There are always interesting galls to be found, and a favorite of mine is the maple eyespot gall caused by a midge. Spiffy red and yellow spots are caused by a chemical response to the egg-laying of the female midge. Cedar-apple galls on cedar were also starting to open.

Maple eyespot gall

For some unknown reason there has been a strong attraction to bucket loaders for a lot of birds, this year. A mockingbird uses the backhoe on a farm for a fine perch to sing away on and at the golf course, a robin built her nest on ours. Every time the loader is used, the nest is taken off and placed in a safe spot nearby. After parking it for the day, the nest is returned, and the robin has resumed laying eggs. All seems well for the moment

Robin’s nest on back hoe
Mockingbird singing from atop a bucket loader

Turtles should be heading for the hills soon to lay eggs. They are surprisingly fast on land when given a reason to press on, especially in egg-laying season. Otherwise, they can be seen relaxing on logs and rocks in calm waters.

Painted turtle laying eggs
Painted turtles soaking in the rays

Trees and shrubs starting to bloom include Viburnum plicatum, Carolina allspice and Fraser magnolia, while horse chestnuts are ending bloom. Oaks are wreaking havoc as flowers have a load of pollen right now, but flowers should be falling soon.

Horsechestnut flowers

As May draws to a close, I am looking forward to more bee and insect activity, a profusion of new life in the form of baby birds and animals, and more color as wildflowers make their mark in the landscape. Altogether, they will become a natural symphony of coordination of sight and sound in their own special place on the earth. I intend to enjoy what remains of this spring. You never know what you will see or come across…

Pamm Cooper

In 2019, while tearing down our bathroom for renovation, we discovered a treasure, a relic of an icon long gone from our U.S. forests. It was paneling from an American chestnut tree and it was beautiful. The panels were several feet wide, much wider than any lumber we can buy today, and the grain was long ad straight, with a honey tone. I was filled with mixed emotions – the excitement of finding something so rare and beautiful yet, sadness that these magnificent trees are no longer part of our forests.

Chestnut paneling. Photo by Marie Woodward

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) trees were once the largest and most abundant trees in the eastern half of the United States, stretching from Maine to Florida. They were estimated to be about four billion in number and considered a keystone species. A lot of wildlife depended on it for survival because it produced a steady supply of highly nutritious nuts every year.  Humans depended on these nuts, too, to feed their livestock and their families, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” was once a common practice, not just a line from a Christmas song. The wood from American Chestnut trees was long, straight, and rot resistant, so it was used to build houses and barns, which helped settle America (and created my hidden paneling).

Historical photo of a large American Chestnut from the Great Smokey Mountains of TN and NC.

But in 1904, a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, better known as chestnut blight, entered the U.S. from imported Asian chestnut trees. Though the Asian chestnut trees were highly resistant to the blight they carried, the American chestnut had no resistance at all. The result was ecological disaster. Within half a century almost all of the country’s four billion American chestnut trees died, with disastrous consequences for both wildlife and the humans who depended on them.

Chestnut blight from

Today, the American chestnut, though not completely extinct, is considered functionally extinct. That’s because while American chestnut trees still emerge from long dead underground chestnut root systems, the blight kills them before they can grow to maturity. However, thanks to science and a nationwide network of volunteers, all is not lost.

Currently there are two programs that are having some success at developing a blight-resistant American Chestnut tree. The American Chestnut Foundation is heading up a breeding program where they are cross-breeding vulnerable early-growth American chestnut trees with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees in order to produce an American/Chinese chestnut hybrid with blight resistance. When the hybrid trees mature, through a process called back-breeding, they cross-breed the blight-resistant American Chinese hybrid chestnut with another American Chestnut tree. The goal is to breed out the characteristics of the Chinese chestnut tree, while keeping the blight resistance. This process has been continued for many generations, with the goal of producing a tree that will be 1/16 Chinese chestnut and 15/16 American chestnut. Such a tree, it is hoped, will have all the characteristics of the American chestnut while keeping the blight resistance acquired from the Chinese chestnut. This approach, of course takes much time and effort, but scientists say they are only one generation away from replanting the American chestnuts in natural forests.

Another exciting approach to reviving the American chestnut is underway at SUNY’S College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Scientists there have been working to save the American chestnut through a process called transgenics, which uses a bacteria, called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, to transfer genes from one species of plant to another species.

The SUNY researchers discovered that a gene in wheat detoxifies an acid (called oxalic acid) that is the same acid the chestnut blight fungus uses to attack American chestnut trees. Using transgenics, they have introduced this acid-fighting gene into the American chestnut tree with very hopeful results. The new gene enables the tree to neutralize the blight’s acid without taking on any characteristics of another tree species. The result is a virtually identical American chestnut tree species that can fight off the blight. Scientists hope to cross breed it with young chestnut trees in the wild that have not yet been attacked, and older trees that have survived the blight.

Their plan is to return this mighty species back to America’s forests through three approaches. They will use the new tree to reforest land previously deforested by mining. They will plant trees at historic sites associated with the American chestnut to recover what the landscape looked like historically; and they will encourage the public to plant trees on their own lands. You can join this effort, which has an active group of supporters right here in Connecticut.

To learn more about the Connecticut chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, visit

By Marie Woodward

Viceroy butterfly on 'Miss Molly' butterfly bush September 2017

Viceroy butterfly on ‘Miss Molly’ butterfly bush

“By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather
And autumn’s best of cheer.”
–   Helen Hunt Jackson, September, 1830-1885

September brings a wealth of inspiration to the senses. Leaves of Virginia creeper are red already, there is the intoxicating scent of wild grapes in the pre-dawn foggy mornings, asters and goldenrods bring colorful splashes to the landscape and sunsets may fill the cooling sky with brilliant deep reds and oranges. Tree Hydrangeas, Hydrangea paniculata, had a great year, and many still have panicles of colorful flower heads. While many plants and insects are winding down to an early retirement, there is still a lot going on in the great outdoors.

Hydrangea paniculata dwarfing a visitor to Wickham Park, Manchester Pamm Cooper photo 2017

Hydrangea paniculata dwarfing a visitor to Wickham Park

It may be the time of year for oddities, now and then. For instance, there is a horse chestnut outside our office on the Storrs campus that has several flowers in full bloom this week. While many shrubs and fruit trees, like cherries and azaleas, may have a secondary bloom in the fall after rains, cool weather with a late autumn warm spell following, a chestnut blooming at this time of year is a more remarkable event. A bumblebee spent time visiting the flowers, so a second round of pollen and nectar is a bonus in that quarter.

bumblebee on horse chestnut flower 9-28-2017

Horse chestnut with visiting bumblebee – an unusual bloom for September

Red-headed crickets are a first for my gardens this September. These small crickets have a distinctive red head and thorax, iridescent black wings, and yellow legs.  At first glance, they really do not appear to be crickets because of how they move around vegetation. They also have large palps with a paddle-like end that they wave around almost constantly, giving the appearance of mini George Foremans sparring in the air before a fight. Found mostly only three feet above the ground, they have a loud trill and are usually more common south and west of Connecticut.

red headed bush cricket backyard garden 2017

Red-headed bush cricket

While visiting Kent Falls recently, I came upon a few small clumps of American spikenard. Aralia racemose, loaded with berries. Highly medicinal, this native plant is found in moist woodland areas such as along the waterfall trail at Kent Falls. Roots are sometimes used as a substitute for sarsaparilla, another Connecticut wildflower.

spikenard Kent Falls 9-11-17

American spikenard berries ripen in September

Many migrating butterflies like monarchs and American Ladies are on the move now and may be found on late season flowers like butterfly bush, zinnias, Tithonia, Lantana, cohosh, goldenrod, asters and many other flowers. In annual plantings where I work, honey bees are especially abundant on Salvia guaranitica  ‘ Black and Blue ’  right now.  And while many butterflies and bees can be found on various butterfly bush cultivars, the hands on favorite seems to be the cultivar ” Miss Molly” which has deep red/pink, richly scented flowers that attract hummingbirds, flower beetles, fly pollinators, people and bees galore. This is a great addition to a pollinator or butterfly garden. Other late season bloomers for our native insects and butterflies are black cohosh and Eupatorium  rugosum, (chocolate Joe-Pye weed), as well as asters and goldenrods.

American lady on Tithonia sunflower

American Lady on Tithonia sunflower

Black and blue salvia

‘Black and Blue’ salvia is great for attracting hummingbirds and honey bees

Snapping turtles are hatching now.  The other day while mowing fairways, I spotted long dew tracks and there at the end were two little snapper hatchlings. Very soft upon hatching, they are often heron chow, and these little turtles will travel long distances to find a good habitat.

newly hatched snapping turtle 9-25-2017 Pamm Cooper photo

Newly hatched snapping turtle

Every day at my house, we engage in a “Where is Waldo?” type hunt in the backyard gardens. What we are looking for are the tiny gray tree frogs that are hanging out on certain plants during the day. Snapping up any insects that get too close, these guys are a lot of fun to watch and look for. Most of ones we are finding are green, and are slightly larger than a thumbnail right now.  It gives us all some free entertainment before the leaves fall and we move on to- raking leaves…

two thumbnail size gray tree frogs Pamm Cooper photo

Two tiny gray tree frogs in my garden

Katydids, crickets and sometimes tree frogs are making a racket at night. Although really not unpleasant, to me, they are loud. But more enjoyable to listen to than the neighbor’s barking dog…I found a katydid eating a hyssop flower recently, but who cares about that this late in the year?

katydid eating hyssop flowers in September

katydid eating hyssop flwer

Bees are having their last hurrah now as the blooming season winds down. While native goldenrods and asters are important food sources of food for late season bees and wasps, there are many garden plants that are important nectar and pollen sources as well. In my own garden, I have two hyssops- anise and blue giant hyssop. There were bumblebees and honeybees that went on both, but there were small bees that preferred only the anise hyssop. These bees were very noisy, and hovered near flowers before landing, behaving like hover flies. Most likely these bees were in the Megachilid genera- the leaf-cutting bees. Abdominal hairs collect the pollen in these species and may take on the brilliant colors of pollen from the flowers they visit.

Megachilid leaf cutting bee on aster Belding September 2017

Megachile family leaf-cutting bee on aster

As the season winds down, there are still some caterpillars to be found, like the beloved wooly bears and other tiger moth cats like the yellow bear. A spotted Apotelodes was a good find. A robust, densely hairy caterpillar, this large fellow is notable for three sets of long hairs called “pencils” along the dorsum, and for its equally conspicuous red feet, making it look like it is wearing five pairs of little red shoes.

spotted apatelodes on honeysuckle Cohen Woodland field 9-12-2017 Pamm Cooper photo

Spotted Apatelodes caterpillar showing its little red feet

And just for fun, next year consider planting a candy corn vine, Manettia inflate, on a small trellis.  An annual vine, flowers last well into the fall before the first killing frost. This South American native has tubular flowers that resemble candy corn, and they are a favorite of the hummingbirds (and myself!) in my backyard.

candy corn vine an annual fun plant Pamm Cooper photo

Candy corn vine


Pamm Cooper