Preserving the American Chestnut

Thousands of volunteers around the country work together to ensure the American chestnut stays alive and well.

| March/April 2013

  • American chestnut's spiky shell
    It’s estimated that chestnut blight killed some 4 billion trees.
    Photo By Shutterstock/Matin

  • American chestnut's spiky shell

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.

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