High hopes for a chestnut comeback
About ten years ago, my daughter was doing a leaf collection. I used that as an excuse to stop and ask for a leaf from a large white oak that I particularly admired.
The old fellow who answered our knock was pleased that we liked his big old white oak. After we had a leaf from it, he asked if we had any chestnut leaves yet. Of course we didn't, and we could hardly believe our good fortune in stumbling across a chestnut.
He took us to his back yard, and showed us several large chestnut sprouts. A chestnut tree had once grown there, and its roots were still alive and sending up shoots. The shoots would grow for a while, he told us, but the blight would get them sooner or later.
He gave us a few chestnut leaves, and he also gave us a little bag of chestnuts! He commented that he had to pick them up as they fell or the squirrels would get them within minutes. I know why the squirrels wanted them. They were delicious.
That was the only time I've ever seen a chestnut tree or eaten a chestnut, but they were once a common and important tree through this part of Kentucky, and the entire Appalachian area.
The chestnut blight (a fungus) began to take its toll on the American chestnut in 1904. Now a century later, there's hope that chestnuts can be restored as an important tree in their natural range.
Some blight-resistant trees have been found, and they are being selectively pollinated and propagated with the intent of producing a blight resistant strain of American Chestnut. For example, a blight-resistant New Hampshire chestnut was recently pollinated by a blight resistant Tennessee chestnut (with the aid of scientists, of course.)
One group that is working to develop blight-resistant American Chestnut trees from 100% American stock is the American Chestnut Coordinators Foundation (ACCF.) It is a non-profit that is affiliated with Virginia Tech.
I don't know if the scientists who are working with the New Hampshire chestnut are from the ACCF, but that's exactly the sort of work they are doing. They are selectively breeding American chestnuts that have shown resistance to the chestnut blight. Their dream is to replant blight-resistant chestnuts in the natural range of the American chestnut.
Chestnut seedlings and seeds are available from the ACCF, with a small membership fee and an agreement to provide data about their health.
The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF)another non-profit organization, has recently received $100,000 in grants from the U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation to use in chestnut planting, pollination, and breeding.
Like the ACCF, the ACF is working to restore chestnuts throughout the former natural range of the tree. Their approach to the problem is different, though. They are developing blight-resistant hybrids of the American Chestnut and the blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut.
The chestnut was a valuable lumber tree as well as an important wildlife tree. It is surely just a matter of time until it is replanted on a broad scale. I hope my great-great-great grandchildren of the 2100s will be so accustomed to chestnut trees that they'll be surprised to learn of the problems the tree had in the 1900s.
The American Chestnut Page
Growing Chestnut Trees
Reclaiming the American Chestnut's Old Dominion