Most of the U.S. population is too young to have ever seen the grandeur of the American chestnut in the forests of southern Ohio and throughout the Appalachian mountains.
These majestic trees dominated these forests at the turn of the 1900s before being decimated by the chestnut blight. These trees ranged from Maine to Georgia and reached 80 to 120 feet in height and 15 feet or more in diameter. Known as the “Redwoods of the East,” they were an immensely valuable tree, providing habitat and an abundant food source for wildlife, as well as a nutritious nut and a superior timber source for humans.
While not recognized at the time of their existence, they played an important role in carbon sequestration due to their rate growth and rot-resistant wood. Only about 11 percent of the trees survived.
Because of the tremendous value of the American chestnut, foresters and researchers have been battling the chestnut blight with little impact for more than 100 years. However, there is now a strong ray of light at the end of the tunnel. According to the U.S. Forest Service, researchers are “using the modern tools of breeding, bio-control methods that rely on a virus that inhibits the growth of the infecting fungus, and direct genetic modification to return the American chestnut to its keystone position in our forests.”
In one study, genetic testing has isolated a gene from bread wheat that has proven effective at protecting the trees from fungus-caused blight. This gene produces an enzyme that the fungus uses to form deadly cankers on the stems. “This common defense enzyme is found in all grain crops as well as in bananas, strawberries, peanuts and other familiar foods consumed daily by billions of humans and animals,” according to one researcher. Adding this one gene to the chestnut genome, which contains about 40,000 other genes, will give the American chestnut the needed blight resistance with a genetic makeup that is more than 99.99 percent identical to the original American chestnut.
Another study is using a genetic process called backcrossing, which crosses genes from the blight resistant Chinese chestnut with the American chestnut. The hope is to produce a resistant tree that has the characteristics of the American chestnut.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry recently planted 1,000 hybrid seedlings in three state forests and plans to plant an additional 2,000 in March. The U.S. Forest Service also planted 1,200 seedlings in the Wayne National Forest. Both state and federal agencies are working in conjunction with the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1983 to restore the American chestnut.
“From an overall ecologic standpoint, from an economic standpoint, this could be a great boon for the Appalachian Mountains. There’s really no other species that can match the chestnut,” said Sara Fitzsimmons of the American Chestnut Foundation. “Other species grow faster, or have the same amount of food, but not in the same package.”
For more information on the American chestnut, go to the foundation’s website at http://www.acf.org/.
I plan to watch as this amazing success story continues to unfold. I hope to fulfill one of my bucket list items one day by walking through a glen of these magnificent trees … if only in their infancy.
Check out the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District’s tree sale flyer on our website at www.delawareswcd.org.
Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.