Commentary by Cindy Ross
Once considered the redwoods of the East, American chestnut trees were mighty giants that blanketed the eastern Appalachians. Infected by a fungus imported on a load of lumber or living trees shortly after 1900, native chestnuts had all but disappeared by 1940. Now, after decades of restoration work, the species is evolving into a success story, albeit a slow-to-occur one.
Throughout the watershed, work is being done by state chapters of The American Chestnut Foundation. In Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, hundreds of volunteers are working to create blight-resistant American chestnut trees by hand pollinating, inoculating to assess blight resistance, backcrossing to keep as much American character as possible, and test planting.
Biologists at Penn State, University of Maryland and Virginia Tech carry out tons of genetic work. Native trees from each state are used in propagation nurseries to acclimate these trees to that states climate.
The goal of all this work is to create a blight-resistant tree so these beautiful and important giants will once again grace our forests and provide important food for wildlife.
The Maryland chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation is planting 600 trees this spring and are seeking volunteers, as always, to help out. There are 300 members in the Maryland chapter. Some have a background in forestry, others just became interested and then it grabs you, said retired physicist, Gary Carver, who served as president of the Maryland chapter and sits on the national board of directors.
Pennsylvania is furthest along in its breeding program, but the other watershed states are not far behind. Six generations of blight-resistant trees have been developed.
The largest living American chestnut in the range, which runs from Maine to Mississippi, is a little more than 3 feet in diameter. The oldest in the country is in Oregon and measures 5 feet in diameter. Montgomery County, MD, has a chestnut that is 90 feet tall, 2 feet wide and is at least 60 years old with no visible sign of blight. Surviving American Chestnuts are found in Anne Arundel County, MDs Downs Park.
This year, a Bio Lab is traveling to Maryland schools where kids can do hands-on experiments and learn about the blight. The American Chestnut Learning Box, designed by Carver, is being manufactured, and marketed to schools and nature centers via The American Chestnut Foundation. The box contains many show and tell pieces as well as books, CDs and posters.
We can do our part to help propagate the species. Friends of nature centers and parent organizations at schools are encouraged to buy a learning box and donate it to the school or nature center. One of the disks in the box is the chestnut curriculum developed by the Carroll County, MD, public school system.
Demonstration plantings are being promoted in parks and at nature centers. Such plantings include American, Chinese, hybrid and blight-resistant chestnut trees, along with explanatory signs. (TACFs blight-resistant trees are called restoration chestnut trees.) Details and a schedule can be found on the American Chestnut Foundations website.
The American chestnut tree is not a good city street tree because it needs well-drained soil and its burs are not child-friendly (nor dog-friendly, for that matter). But they are good in appropriate spots in parks, so we can encourage our towns to plant some.
Each spring, saplings are available from the foundation to individuals and groups to plant (from 10-15,000). They can be picked up at the foundations spring meetings or they can be shipped.
These saplings, said Sara Fitzsimons, the foundations regional science coordinator, are American chestnuts that were collected by volunteers and are not breed stock. (The state of Maryland alone has 40 chestnut orchards scattered around the state). These saplings are used mostly to train people to learn to plant and are expendable. If they die, one can obtain more next year.
Another cool program is being conducted on the Appalachian Trail. Section hikers are given a map of their area to hike through, a half-mile in length. They record the presence of American chestnuts, along with detailed info on soil type, location, etc. The goal of the project is to develop a data base of areas where the tree thrives, so they can be reintroduced in similar areas. Training workshops will take place at the Delaware Water Gap on May 26 and June 2. The foundation is open for more trails and more hikers to join the program.
Members of the American Chestnut Foundations chapters can also be coerced, Carver laughed, to do talks to nature center audiences and organizations like garden clubs or Master Gardeners. Education is a huge part but it cant compare to digging in the soil, planting a chestnut seed and seeing it sprout to rekindle hope.
Cindy Ross writes from Pennsylvania. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.