Chestnuts are native to the middle latitudes of Asia, Europe and North America. They have often been members of climax forest communities, primeval forests where individual chestnut trees commonly lived to 1000 years of age.
Chestnuts resemble oak trees in their regal stature and extremely fine wood. Yet, they also have a very prickly side, manifested in the porcupine-like spines that cover the husks around each pair of nuts. The husks carpet the ground under the trees, making them unappealing place to host a picnic.
The nuts have the nutritional composition of a potato and have served as a staple food source in regions where the geography is unsuitable for the production of grains, such as the dry, rocky hills of the Mediterranean basin. Besides the proverbial 'roasting on an open fire', chestnuts can be ground into a meal and used to make bread.
The American chestnut was once the predominant canopy from Georgia to Maine, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. Its historic legacy ended in the first half of the 20th century when a chestnut blight was introduced from Asia that wiped out almost every single one of the estimated 4 million trees during a 40-year span. Conservationists have been busy breeding a blight-resistant American chestnut ever since, though complete resistance has thus far been elusive.