Ask the Steward


Question: Will we ever see the return of American Chestnut trees to the forests of Indiana? Virginia P.

Answer: Yes, Virginia I believe we will. The American Chestnut was once one of the most abundant trees in the in the south Central and Appalachian hardwood region. It was highly prized for its solid, rot resistant lumber, wildlife value and its highly edible fruit. The Chestnut was considered ‘Lord of the Forest’ and undoubtedly was one of the most dominant trees in the forest for centuries. It could be found from Maine to Georgia and certainly throughout much of Southern Indiana. It had a fast growth rate and grew to large size, with trees over 100’ tall 3’ diameters not uncommon. Some trees were reported greater than 10’ in diameter which lead to the nickname ‘the redwood of the East’. That all changed in a matter of 50 years when the Chestnut Blight ravaged across the East after first being discovered in 1904 in a New York Zoological Park. The disease originated in Asia and within a few decades of its New York discovery the landscaped was forever changed. On the bright side- not all the American Chestnut died and there has been active genetic breeding and research to breed resistance to the disease. Most of this has been to cross the American Chestnut with blight resistant Chinese Chestnut. The American Chestnut Foundation and its members have been active for many years in these efforts and have lead the call for the species recovery. Some of the research is occurring right here in Indiana at the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center and is showing some promise. There is an expectation that blight resistant Chestnut may only be a decade or less away. There is real hope that American Chestnut will once again be a member of the Indiana forests to the thanks of many who have toiled decades pursuing this dream.


Question: My Uncle used to witch for water with both a stick and 2 wire rods. Does this really work? What kind of wood works best?

Answer: I too had an uncle that did this and swore that witching for water really worked. In fact, some family members would have him come over to help pick the best spot for their water wells. Also known as ‘dowsing’ and ‘rhabdomancy’, water witching has been around for a very long time- millennia. The basic premise is that the witching wand (a ‘Y’ shaped branch, or two ‘L’ shaped wires) can be used to source underground water, including waterlines. When you feel the branch being pulled downward, or the 2 wires cross it is at this point where you stand above the water source. Does it work? I know of no scientific evidence that dowsing actually works any better than chance under controlled conditions, but there are many stories told to the contrary. The fact be told, these are just stories and have no real science backing. So maybe the two wires in my hands while searching for a waterline crossed because I subconsciously altered my grip. I did, after all know where the water line was supposed to be. Want to give it a try: Witch-hazel, peach and willow are commonly cited as species used for water witching. Some prefer the branches to be green and freshly cut. Just don’t bet the house on it- or much else.


Dan Ernst is an Assistant State Forester with the Indiana Division of Forestry. He oversees the state forests in Indiana and has authored the “Ask the Steward” column for years. Have a question for the column? Email Dan at