Chestnuts Roasting…Stoke the Fire!

The fantastic American Chestnut is back?  Well, maybe not just yet…BUT, after more than a half a century of absence, they WILL RETURN to the American landscape, maybe sooner than you think!

Cryphonectria parasitica, better known as Chestnut Blight, was accidentally introduced to our native population of the American Chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) in 1904. The Japanese Chestnut carrying the deadly pathogen was available via mail-order and became quickly distributed across the area.  This fungus works swiftly, using the trees own defenses to essentially girdle itself from the inside.  By the time the tree is dead, the fungus has spread to all surrounding trees.  Amazingly the…

roots remain alive to continue sending up suckers in a desperate attempt to survive.  Unfortunately, by the time the suckers are 10-12 feet high, the fungus has found its way back.  By 1950, in an area stretching from Maine to Alabama, 3.5 billion trees were annihilated. This biological disaster has kept scientists on their toes during the 20th century as they realize how easily a similar situation could occur.  The Oak, which has been found to be susceptible to a similar pathogen, could very easily realize the same fate as the Chestnut.

As one might imagine, attempts at possible reintroduction of this tree seemed futile.  The American Chestnut had been an invaluable resource in early America, providing both hardwood and nut meat.  It has been fairly unanimous that this tree is definitely worth committing some time and energy to.  The USDA designated a few decades of research attempting to cross it with the immune Chinese Chestnut but ceased to fund the program in 1960.  Luckily, an independent researcher by the name of Dr. Arthur Graves had already been conducting his own backcross breeding studies.  The idea was simple, but required much patience.  The process involves cross breeding the Chinese Chestnut with our American Chestnut and continue to backcross until a tree which has the physical qualities of the American Chestnut, but also carries the blight resistant qualities of the Chinese specimen.  Each cross required 6-7 years of growth before it would flower, fruit and could finally be crossed.  Working closely with geneticist, Donald Jones, the first crosses were made in 1930 and we can anticipate full reintroductions of the final prodigy in the very near future…possibly next year. 

The hard work and dedication of a few will hopefully help us bring back this prized tree.  They will almost certainly re-assume their position in the Eastern American landscape as the well-deserved dominant tree of the forest.  While most of us will not live to realize the full maturity of the reforested areas, our children and grand children will benefit greatly.  Maybe, once again, the American Chestnut can be roasted over the open fire, as the song portrays.  Mmm…mmm…good!


 The Garden that is Finished is Dead