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Sweet (or American) Chestnut Tree, Cedar Needle Drop & Tree-Cutting By-laws

Growing the lovely Sweet (or American) Chestnut tree in mild parts of British Columbia; and why do Cedar trees appear to be dropping all their foliage now; plus an initial comment on tree-cutting by-laws in municipalities !
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

October 16, 2011

Above, close-up of flower of Sweet Chestnut; a group of Sweet Chestnut trees in the fall (both of these shots were taken at the Mainau garden in Germany); and close-up of foliage and Sweet Chestnut fruit on a tree in Stanley Park, Vancouver. Below, two shots of old needles ready to drop from our Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Author photos.

A couple of questions rolled in this week, and both could be of interest to a wider audience. The first came from Vancouver Island resident, Gill Blything. Here is what he wrote: “I just have a quick question--if you can get back to me sometime, with your thoughts, that would be great (it’s not urgent).

“I live in Duncan [1/2 way between Parksville and Victoria] and wonder what you think about growing sweet chestnuts here. I know of only one tree in this area but it seems to be thriving and producing lots of nuts.

“I have a dream of starting a sweet chestnut orchard here. I’m from the south of England where the climate is similar-- and there are lots of chestnut trees. I originally thought that they would thrive here too, but now I realize that there are blights and fungus going on of which I am totally ignorant.

“I thank you in advance for any help you can give me. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for new adventures, but this one keeps elbowing me in the ribs so I guess it’s time I got more information. Many thanks for any advice, all the best.”

As it happens, I wrote a little bit on this subject here back on August 11, 2000. Here is part of that item: “Most Canadians, at least those east of the B.C./Alberta border, not only cannot recognize a sweet chestnut (Castanea dentata) tree, but know little about them. Though not even closely related to the well-known horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) [i.e. not even in the same plant family], the fruit husks of the two are somewhat similar.

“The disease chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) was introduced to eastern North America in the early 1900s (likely in 1904) and it spread through the sweet chestnut trees by the 1920s. By the 1930s, virtually all in eastern Canada were dead. The tree does reproduce by stump sprouts (suckers from the roots) and generally trees appearing dead may often produce such sprouts. They will grow for a number of years, achieving up to 3 metres in height, but succumb to the blight often before producing any quantity of nuts. Thus, my opening statement, folks in Canada basically don’t know the tree at all.

“There are stands and individual specimens of a reasonable size, producing nuts, located in various parts of Ontario. It would appear that if they are established using shoots from non-blight-infected trees, in areas where the blight did not appear (e.g. in the Ottawa area where there were no trees growing when the blight hit, thus no blight remains) it has been possible to establish a reasonable stand of these beautiful trees.”

However, as I indicated, all of that is east of the BC/Alberta border. Here in the milder parts of BC there is generally not a problem growing the trees. That is simply because the blight never did reach here. I am told that occasionally some nurseries in BC offer young trees, but in a quick check on the Web I found none currently on offer. They are available from some Ontario nurseries (such as Ernie Grimmo’s in Niagara-on-the-Lake) but due to the fact the blight is not in BC, these nurseries are not allowed to ship trees here.

You might want to contact the British Columbia Landscape & Nursery Association to see if they can make a suggestion as to what nursery might have some. You could also contact the BC Agriculture Ministry as they do state that there is a small industry producing those nuts here!

Good Luck Gill, do drop me a note when you get your little operation up and running!

The second question, is a common one around this time of year, every year and it came from a good friend of mine Louise Wall who lives up in Qualicum Beach: “Hi Art, what can be done about cedar trees that have gone all brown on the inside?”

As we all know, cedar trees, likely the giant and stately Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) that she is asking about, are evergreens, but what we often don’t realize is that all evergreens, or conifers, lose some leaves every year in advance of new foliage that will be produced in the following year. Some evergreen trees are more obvious in their leaf drop (Arbutus is particularly so). Both the Western Red Cedar here in BC, and the Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis, also known as Arborvitae and Swamp Cedar) across the entire country, drop many interior ‘needles’ at this time of year. It is nothing about which to be concerned and literally nothing can be done, except to shake the trees!.

Some years the needle drop is heavier than others, and this year it may just be slightly heavier due to the more excessive new growth put out this spring which was quite wet—to the trees’ delight!

The old foliage of Cedars makes an excellent mulch, especially around acid-loving plants like Rhododendron, Kalmia, Pyracantha, Arbutus, Pieris and hollies.

* * *

Just to conclude this week, I want to introduce a subject that I shall certainly not cover entirely in this or any other article. It is the concept of whether tree cutting or even pruning on private land (including single family homes) should or should not be regulated by local governments. It comes up now because here in our little 300-plus single family home community of San Pareil (definitely urban development right in the midst of a rural area) one homeowner recently cut down a large number of old growth Douglas fir trees (and perhaps some Western Red Cedar as well) ostensibly to build a type of out-building such as a shed.

The neighbours were rightfully devastated at the action that occurred with no warning.

We are located in the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN), although we do receive some service (fire) from the very nearby City of Parksville. The RDN has no tree by-law; in fact few communities have any substantial tree by-law.

There are many considerations regarding tree by-laws. I have been involved in this cause since the early 1970s, when I originally strongly backed the imposition of Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) in Canadian cities, following what was done (and continues now) in the U.K. In those 40 years, after seeing what can happen following the passing of tree by-laws, my thoughts have turned 180 degrees. In a future column here I shall review the current Toronto by-law, instituted in 2004 (and one of the strongest) and also write a little bit about the U.K. TPOs, and explain my opposition to any such by-law here.

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