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Sunday, September 15, 2013
When a state wildlife biologist in Georgia stumbled upon an undiscovered stand of half a dozen American chestnut trees in 2006, he said the experience was like coming face-to-face with Bigfoot. Lovers of the natural world, he said, wish they could turn back the clock to protect two U.S. species: the ivory-billed woodpecker and the mighty giant of the arboreal world.
“You hear these stories about the mountaintops covered and the blossoms in the spring, and it just makes you want to see that again,” said Nathan Klaus of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who had never before viewed a full-grown American chestnut.
Klaus expressed the longing so many Americans feel about one of the worst environmental disasters of the past century. It was the American chestnut on which those squirrels of lore skipped their way from Maine to Georgia without touching ground. Ironically, as the words “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” were being penned, the last of the trees was succumbing to blight.
Residents of the Roanoke and New River valleys can take heart in knowing that many people and groups, including Virginia Tech’s Catawba Sustainability Center, are working toward the day when American chestnuts can once again grow to maturity. Their demise began early in the 20th century when billions of trees succumbed to a fungus imported on Chinese or Japanese species of the tree, which carried Cryphonectria parasitica but were resistant to it.
“The loss of the chestnut, in terms of the sheer number of trees killed, the size of its range before the blight, and the variety of habitats affected by its demise, is unrivaled in the history of human-wrought ecological disasters,” writes David Vandermast, reviewing Susan Freinkel’s 2007 book “American Chestnut” in the journal American Scientist. “The chestnut’s former importance in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where it grew to its greatest size, lives on in place names such as Chestnut Ridge and Yellow Mountain (referring to the splash of color when the chestnuts were in bloom).”
High on a ridge at the Catawba Sustainability Center, the 377-acre farm that Virginia Tech owns, more than 50 American chestnut trees were planted last year. As expected, several trees have already died, and more seeds will be planted this fall and next. Even if their lifespans are short, however, they will serve a noble purpose. Trees that survive long enough to flower will be a source of pollen and thus a means to preserve local genetics. The small mother-tree orchard is an important step on the long road to forest restoration.
The Catawba Sustainability Center is also planning a separate 300-tree orchard. This orchard will contribute to the process called “backcrossing,” which is being carried out on plots of land across the country. A completely blight-resistant species is being developed by employing genes from the Chinese chestnut. To preserve the genetics of the regional strain, the trees are backcrossed with trees native to our region. Over time, the blight-resistant trees, though one-sixteenth Chinese, will be perfectly matched to the climate and soils of Catawba and Southwest Virginia.
Volunteers are vital to the effort. This year, a group that includes members of The American Chestnut Foundation will be replacing any trees from the 2012 planting that died. Local arborist Carl Absher will, as he has in the past, line up volunteers to dig with augurs, plant the seedlings, measure their heights after planting and record data to keep track of where each tree is planted.
It’s no mystery why the American chestnut was beloved. The trees provided food for wildlife and strong wood prized by woodworkers. Their forest canopy was robust enough to fuel the economies of New England and Appalachia. And no mention of the American chestnut can be made without acknowledging its beauty.
Crossbreeding today’s survivors will speed up a process that, if left to evolution, would take hundreds of years to complete. The hope is that these trees, which soar to heights of more than 100 feet, will one day no longer need human help, because they will once again be hardy enough not only to survive but also flourish in the wild.
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