The giant chestnut tree the Puyallup School District removed from a school playground last month can pose a life-threatening allergic reaction only if digested, experts say.
Dr. Jeffrey Demain, a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, wrote in an email that chestnuts can be a food allergy. However, being near a chestnut tree without eating its nuts wouldn’t cause a “systemic reaction” in someone with a tree nut allergy, Demain said.
A systemic reaction is when inflammation spreads from one area of the body, such as the skin, to another.
The News Tribune reported in August that the school district removed an American chestnut tree at Stewart Elementary School for student health reasons. The district’s health services department suggested the superintendent’s office do so.
“After following appropriate tree removal protocols with the city, the district removed the tree from the playground area due to it being a prolonged health risk to students with life-threatening allergies to tree nuts,” the school district wrote in a statement.
Dr. Nana Mireku, a pediatric and adult allergist based in Texas, said it’s possible to get seasonal allergies from a chestnut tree. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s not life-threatening, Mireku said.
School district spokesperson Sarah Gillispie wrote in an email that the school district’s concern is primarily “life-threatening allergies brought on by food allergies.”
“Life-threatening symptoms can occur when a student touches and/or comes in contact with chestnuts. The district’s health care team has both objective and subjective health care data that supports the chestnut tree had caused concerning reactions and symptoms for some of our students with life-threatening tree nut allergies,” Gillispie said.
Asked about what happened to the wood after the tree was cut, Gillispie said: “The district hired a contractor to remove and dispose the tree.”
The city of Puyallup allowed the removal of the tree, The News Tribune reported. The tree wasn’t registered as part of the city’s historic tree list, but it used to be because of its age and size.
Crews felled the chestnut tree at Stewart Elementary School Aug. 17, 2023. Courtesy of Paul Russell Fridlund
American chestnut trees slowly becoming ‘extinct’
Residents near the elementary school told The News Tribune in August that the tree was planted in the late 1890s or early 1900s.
Doug Gillis, president of the Carolinas Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, wrote in an email that there aren’t many American chestnut trees identified in the Pacific Northwest.
The large chestnut trees that exist today were planted over 100 years ago, Gillis said. The tree is slowly becoming “extinct,” he said, which is why it’s important to help restore its numbers.
In Washington state, he only knows of two. They’re at the Mills & Mills Funeral Home in Tumwater.
He said there could be American chestnut trees in the region that haven’t been identified yet. The American Chestnut Foundation has information about how to identify the trees at tacf.org/identification/.
Gillis cautioned that European chestnut trees are sometimes confused with American chestnut trees. There are also times when the trees grow near each other and produce a hybrid European-American chestnut tree.
The foundation’s mission is to “return the iconic American chestnut to its native range using trees developed to resist both chestnut bark blight and root rot,” Gillis said.
Root rot and chestnut bark blight both came from Asia in the 1800s. The pathogens devastated billions of chestnut trees at the time, Gillis said, and still exist today.
Squirrels and birds help preserve the American chestnut by carrying the nuts away and burying them. Gillis said it’d be good if humans planted more American chestnut trees, too.
A world without the trees “would be a sad thing,” he said.
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Angelica Relente covers topics that affect communities in East Pierce County. She started as a news intern in June 2021 after graduating from Washington State University. She is also a board member of Seattle’s Asian American Journalists Association. She was born in the Philippines and spent the rest of her childhood in Hawaii.