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American Chestnut to Rise Again

The American chestnut tree, almost wiped out by a fungus from Asia, could soon be resurrected in blight-resistant form.

By | October 5, 2012

Wikimedia, ChoessThe American chestnut (Castanea dentate) was once the cornerstone tree species of eastern North America, showering forest floors with nuts upon which several animal species relied for food. But in the early 1900s it began to fall victim to chestnut blight, a fungus that had arrived from Asia. Where it had dominated a vast range from Maine to Mississippi, by the 1950s the chestnut was almost gone. Now, efforts to tame the blight are finally beginning to pay off, raising the possibility that the iconic tree could flourish again.

A number of approaches are bearing fruit. The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), an alliance of amateur enthusiasts and plant pathologists, has created blight-resistant hybrid trees by crossing descendants of original chestnuts with the smaller Chinese variety (Castanea mollissima), which has some natural immunity. After decades of work, they now have the most promising hybrid yet: the “restoration chestnut,” which is 94% American and 6% Chinese, just enough to keep it healthy.

Other plant scientists are trying to create a genetically modified (GM) version with resistance conferred by genes inserted into the American chestnut genome from Asian chestnuts. They are currently testing their GM trees, and plan to seek federal approval for larger planting projects. “Chestnut may be the first case of a genetically engineered tree that's planted out,” Douglass Jacobs, a forest ecologist at Purdue University who was not involved in the work, told Nature. “If that happens it can probably pave the way for other trees.”

Others hoping to restore the American chestnut to prominence are tackling the blight with viruses that spread easily among closely related fungi—a tactic that has worked in Europe. But American fungal strains are more diverse, which slows things down, so researchers have developed a transgenic virus designed to spread more easily. If it can compete with and replace wild-type fungal strains, it could be a weapon used in the protection of American chestnuts.

Correction (November 5, 2012): This story has been updated to reflect that the "restoration chestnut" is 94 percent American and 6 percent Chinese. The Scientist regrets the error.

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Avatar of: GerryS

GerryS

Posts: 10

October 8, 2012

As a boy, I moved with my family to Owings Mills MD.  At that time and for a long time we had shoots from the American Chestnut growing from the stumps of old trees.  There was the standing stump of a massive dead American Chestnot that remained standing for a long time.  We even had one shoot grow to maturity and produce nots aroud 20 years ago, but the following year it deveoped the canker and died.  I have not seen a shoot for years.  Just behing us near the chapel of the veterans cemetery in Owings Mills, there were a few trees that were able to reach as high as 75 feet and regularly produced fruit

Currently at Oregon Ridge there is a stand of American chestnut seedlings planted from trees that survived long enough to produce seeds, presumably with some kind of inherited resistance in the hopes that they will grow to maturity and survive the canker.

I was told but have never seen, a large, full size nut bearing tree in Catoctin National Park in Maryland that others I know have seen.

On a visit to the Smoky Mountain, we atayed in a cabin with walls made from chestnut wood tht had been recovered fron the reservoirs.  When the disease struch, a massive foresting campaign took place and the logs were floated down the lakes.  Some inevitably sunk and every so often the parks allow for limited harvesting of the wood.  As with birds eye maple, the wood is not like the fresh harvested wood, but is solid as a rock and requires a drill to drive a nail into it.

As young man, I knew an old fellow who had green houses and he showed me a wall in his planting shed that was of Aerican Chestnut.

My father grew up on a farm in east Baltimore, MD and on the farm near tier house was a massive American Chestnut that had quite a magnificent spread as it was in the open.  He said that the first year the blight hit the tree, most of it died with a little green left.  The following year the rest died.  Dad planted three American-Chinese hybrids in our woods of which only one still survives, but it has grown very little.

The legacy of this tres has fascinated me and I consider it part of my heritage.  As a lover of wood, its various grains, textures, hardnesses and smells, I long to know what this wood is like.  I am getting on in years and will not live long enough to see the trees take hold, but hope that the generation to come will be able to enjoy their magnificance.  For me that magnificence is only a legend, but for them, perhaps it will become a reality.   Beauty is part of our human heritage and the ability to appreciate it runs deep in our blood.  We need to put aside our computers and gadgets and learn to appreciate it  and care for it before it is gone from us.

Avatar of: moofsmom

moofsmom

Posts: 1

October 10, 2012

And their blossoms stood straight up like Christmas tree-shaped spires. White with multicolored pistils (I think it was the pistils0. very beautiful. Not to mention you could conk your brother's bean with a well flung nut!.

Avatar of: BarbC

BarbC

Posts: 1

October 12, 2012

Dan, who edits your work because your chestnut is a 102% hybrid.

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