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Restoring the Sequoia of the East: Striving to Bring Back the American Chestnut

You are not in your office straining your eyes while staring at a bright, harsh computer screen.  You are not in a conference room attending another lengthy meeting.  You are not stuck in traffic, scanning the radio stations seeking an escape. You are not surrounded by soaring edifices, the beeping of cars, and the rush of the city.

Instead, you are here: 

You step into an Appalachian forest, crunching leaves beneath your feet on a brisk March morning. Spring has just arrived and if you look and listen closely, there are clues of the season all around. You hear the dawn chorus of robins, waking the woods.  The witch hazel on the forest floor blooms a bright yellow, complimented by emerald leaves of grass poking through the leaf cover. The dogwoods and redbuds of the understory reach for the sunlight as the buds swell on their branches.  Your eyes move upwards, following the trunks of the forest giants; Red Oak, White Oak, Ash, Beech, Cherry, Burr Oak, still slumbering, awaiting warm sunny days.  It is undoubtedly a sight to behold.  A sight that, over a hundred years ago, looked much different. 

Over a century ago the dominant forest giant of the Appalachian woodland was the American Chestnut. One of the tallest trees in the forest, the Chestnut had a range of over 300,000 square miles on the east coast of the United States and made up 25% of the forest canopy. The tree produced great amounts of nuts that both humans and animals consumed.  The wood was used to build homes, barns, and tools. The Chestnut was an indispensable asset and it was symbolic of American strength and spirit.

Despite its behemoth size and place in American culture, the Chestnut would not remain an iconic forest giant in the Appalachian woodland.

The practice of importing exotic plant species to the United States has caused irreversible ecological damage, and the loss of the American Chestnut is a prime example. In 1876 Japanese Chestnuts were shipped to the United States and along with them came Chestnut blight. The Asian varieties of Chestnuts evolved with this blight and were able to withstand the disease. The American Chestnut simply could not. In half a century the blight nearly destroyed the entire population of Chestnuts, killing 4 billion trees.

Extinction, however, is the not the fate of the American Chestnut.  Stands of blight resistant trees were slowly discovered across the eastern United States. A collection of scientists, farmers, naturalists and enthusiasts drew inspiration from these remaining stands and have worked for decades to bring back the Chestnut.  In 1987 progress exponentially grew with the formation of the American Chestnut Foundation. The foundation’s research farm in Meadowview, Virginia has worked on three primary means of creating blight resistant trees. The most recent method is based in the research of viruses and their capability of destroying funguses similar to the blight.  One slightly controversial method employed is the creation of genetically modified Chestnut trees designed to be blight resistant.  The third, tried and true method of Chestnut propagation is that of hybridization. American Chestnuts and Chinese Chestnuts are cross pollinated, creating a hybrid nut, which will grow a tree that is potentially resistant to the blight.

One of the challenges of hybridization is keeping the traits of the American Chestnut (tall, robust, massive) while also possessing the Chinese Chestnut trait of blight resistance.  Due to this, the ACF strove to hybridize a tree that contained as little genetic material as possible from the Chinese Chestnut while still being blight resistant. The resulting trees are known as B3F3 hybrids.  These numbers and letters may take you back to high school biology; they refer to the generation of the plant.  These trees are 94% American Chestnut and 6% Chinese Chestnut, and they may be the best hope to restoring the American Chestnut.

Since the formation of the ACF, the foundation has produced 120,000 experimental trees, sending them across different regions of the eastern United States, striving to bring back the Chestnut. The Parklands of Floyds Fork has had the honor of being a location for planting and propagating these hybrid trees.  With the extraordinary support from George and Betty Gibbs, and Parkland Members alike, the park was able to build an American Chestnut Grove in Beckley Creek Park where pure American Chestnuts and hybrids are being grown. This spring the park received a total of 160 hybrid Chestnuts.  Over the course of the spring, visitors to The Parklands will see a restoration of the George and Betty Gibbs American Chestnut Grove as well as various plantings of Chestnuts throughout the park. 

Get Involved:

If you are interested in playing a more active role in restoring the American Chestnut, The Parklands is currently seeking volunteers to assist in the revitalization of the George and Betty Gibbs American Chestnut Grove.  Contact our Program Coordinator, Ali Greenwell, at agreenwell@21cparks.org for more information.

 

Photos courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation.

About the Author

Picture of Evan Patrick

Evan Patrick

Evan began his career with the Parklands in 2013 as a park attendant and part-time helper on Natural Areas projects. In 2014 he joined the Natural Areas team as a technician and in the spring of 2015 was promoted to Natural Areas Team Leader. While working he spends his time promoting healthy habitats for the plants and animals that live in the park. Patrick was born in Morehead, Kentucky near the Daniel Boone National Forest, where his appreciation for nature, conservation and stewardship was cultivated. Patrick is a graduate of the University of Louisville, where he earned a degree in anthropology. His interests include cooking, mushroom foraging, craft beer and the outdoors.

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