Preserving the American Chestnut
Thousands of volunteers around the country work together to ensure the American chestnut stays alive and well.
It’s estimated that chestnut blight killed some 4 billion trees.
Photo By Shutterstock/Matin
In 2011, Maine forester Glen Rea planted American chestnut seeds in a plot in Unity, Maine, to see if any would survive. Rea, a former chairman of the American Chestnut Foundation, and a handful of volunteers wanted to see if the trees could maintain high blight resistance and endure the harsh winter conditions of the Northeast.
The trees passed the test. The saplings not only fought off the bitter Maine frost, but they have managed to be highly blight resistant. With the success of his young chestnuts, Rea is now moving forward with a plan to create a seed-breeding orchard in Maine, where he will grow highly blight-resistant chestnuts, and then cull all but one out of every 150 to arrive at the genetic cream of the crop for cross-breeding.
“We’re really aggressive at this final stage,” Rea says.
It might seem like a difficult job for someone who has an affinity for the American chestnut, but Rea knows it’s necessary.
“If you can call it ‘falling in love’ with a tree, I did it with the chestnut,” he says.
Across the Eastern seaboard, volunteers are registering similar success in their attempts to resurrect the American chestnut. In 2012, the American Chestnut Foundation distributed some 72,000 seeds bred at a special Virginia research farm to plant throughout the tree’s historical range as far south as Georgia. The goal is to develop regional seed stock and re-establish a species that once was an iconic part of the American landscape.
The American chestnut annually produces abundant seeds that can feed an ecosystem, it has wonderful rot-resistant timber, and it once created a canopy that earned it the label “Redwood of the East.” The United States was partially built on the timber and seed of the American chestnut, says Mark Double, a West Virginia University research associate in plant pathology.
“You made your cradles with it; you made your coffins with it,” Double says.
In 1905, scientists discovered a new fungus attacking American chestnuts at a New York zoo. At first officials weren’t concerned, but then the chestnut blight spread rapidly. Unified action against the blight was delayed, with some scientists believing it local in origin and something the chestnut could fight off. They were wrong; the fungus came from abroad, and the American chestnut had no natural defense.
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