The American Chestnut Tree: Tragic Past and Hopeful Future

The American Chestnut Tree: Tragic Past and Hopeful Future

On a late June morning I met up with about 25 people at the parking area of the Wyndham Land Trust’s Bull Hill Project in Thompson and Woodstock. We weren’t there just to hike to the top of Bull Hill for the view, rather we had come to learn about and to join in a search for American chestnut trees in bloom.

You may have heard about the amazing American chestnut tree. Here in The Last Green Valley is was a “keystone” species, important to wildlife and humans, and a tree that dominated the forest landscape. At one time, American chestnuts were unrivaled as a nutritious food source for wildlife and people. They have hard wood that is durable, workable and uniquely rot-resistant, with many uses in construction, furniture and fencing.

The story of the American chestnut is also a tragic one. In the early 20th century an Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was introduced into North America on imported chestnut trees from East Asia. The disease all but wiped out more than three billion American chestnut trees within a matter of decades. The American chestnut had dominated the forest canopy throughout the Appalachian, Adirondack and New England regions, making its loss all the more disheartening. It truly was a tree like no other.

Even though most mature chestnut trees have disappeared, it is common today to see shorter saplings that sucker grow from stumps and roots of dead chestnuts. Unfortunately, the stump sprouts are almost always infected by the fungus by the time they reach 20 feet tall, but some trees do bloom. I have found many saplings along the trail to the top of Bull Hill as well as most of the forested trails I have hiked in our region. Though I frequently discover American chestnut saplings, I have never seen one tall and mature enough to flower and set seeds. The best source of information for identifying the American chestnut can be found at the website for The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), https://www.acf.org/resources/identification/

Joining us for our hike and search for flowering chestnut trees was Andy Rzeznikiewicz, land steward for the Bull Hill Project, and members of the Connecticut Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation. During the hike I spoke briefly with Jack Swatt, President of the Connecticut Chapter. We spoke on the phone after the hike, and I learned more about the efforts the foundation is taking to return this iconic tree to its native range.

At the summit area of Bull Hill, the team from TACF CT Chapter led us to a sunny spot where chestnut sprouts had access to full sun, allowing their quick growth and subsequent flowering. We spotted at least two flowering trees and Jack and others from TACT CT Chapter gathered seed pods to take back to the foundation for analysis. They had visited Bull Hill last year and discovered flowering chestnut trees, but sadly one of the trees they collected nuts from had succumbed to the blight and stood with bare branches and a few dead chestnuts seeds still hanging.

From Jack I learned more about the painstaking process being undertaken to crossbreed American chestnut trees with the Chinese chestnut. The Chinese species is resistant to the blight, so the trick is to find the right percentage of American and Chinese genes to maintain the distinct quality and look of the American chestnut but enough of the resistance of the Chinese variety to keep it alive and thriving. The best way to learn about efforts to restore the American chestnut to the landscape is to review the website of The American Chestnut Foundation – Connecticut Chapter. You can find their website at: https://www.acf.org/ct/

The website section on research and blight describes in detail how they are crossbreeding the American and Chinese chestnuts.

To grow out the trees that have been crossbred, the foundation is actively seeking locations for seed orchards. Several individuals and organizations have leased their open fields for these seed orchards and these volunteer efforts are important to the success of bringing back the American chestnut. Here is the description of the seed orchards from the Connecticut Chapter website.

“Seed orchards are the next major phase of the breeding program and we are actively pursuing locations that could support the seed orchards. A seed orchard is the required next step in producing trees for reforestation in CT that have 50 percent of their DNA from persisting native CT American Chestnut trees that flowered, allowing pollination and collection of nuts. This DNA reflects the native gene pool that is associated with CT’s soils, light periodicity, disease resistance, rainfall patterns, temperature extremes, etc. These factors differ throughout the native chestnut range in the US and even within CT itself. Capturing this diversity is the goal of the CT program, and seed orchards are our organizational focus, and the primary use of our volunteer efforts.”

“In a seed orchard we plant 3,000 nuts representing crosses between the 20 lines of trees we pollinated and grew in our backcross orchards. We monitor them for resistance and remove the trees until only those very resistant and American chestnut looking trees remain. These trees are 15/16ths “American” in character. The key difference is that the resistance to the blight has been bred into them from the Chinese chestnut. Those few trees (20) remaining will intercross and produce seed that is expected to grow trees with high resistance to the chestnut blight and the ability to breed true to resistance.”

Information on the American chestnut seed orchards in Connecticut can be found at: https://www.acf.org/ct/seed-orchards/

I had a very enjoyable hike up Bull Hill, and it was fun to see an American chestnut tree in bloom. Talking with Jack I learned more about the efforts to finally restore this wonderful tree species to our forests. According to Jack, the TACF Connecticut Chapter hopes that within five years, fully resistant American chestnut seedlings will be available for sale to the public. I look forward to the day I can plant these trees on my own property.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for it, enjoy it and pass it on. I dream of a day when the American chestnut tree will again be thriving in National Heritage Corridor. Now that would be something to pass on to the next generation.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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