American chestnut trees: on their way back

If you had given up hope of ever again gazing up at the vast leafy canopy of an American chestnut tree, take heart! The majestic tree was almost completely wiped out several decades ago by a disease and it seemed that the American chestnut had gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo.

However, plant scientists are working diligently to bring back the American chestnut in a stronger, disease-resistant form.

The magnificent tree had been a familiar sight on the American landscape. Its timber was used for building homes and barns. The chestnuts provided food for livestock and wildlife. Its canopy provided shade for both humans and animals.

But all that was about to come to a rapid end. Asian chestnut trees were imported into the United States and those trees carried with them a fungus that quickly transferred to the American chestnuts. Over centuries, the Asian trees had learned to resist the fungus but their American cousins had no such immunity.

In 1904, botanists at the Bronx Zoo in New York were the first to notice that the chestnut trees there were infected with a fatal fungus. The disease swept quickly across the continent and by the early 1950s the American chestnut had all but disappeared. As many as four billion trees were wiped out.

Botanists have undertaken a long-term project to revive the American chestnut. They have planted 1,200 chestnut tree saplings in national forests in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and are watching over them as closely as a mother hen with her chicks.

In a November, 2009, story reported by USA TODAY, Ron Sederoff, professor of forestry at North Carolina State University said that the American chestnut was one of the most important trees in the ecology of the Apalachian Mountains. “There were communities that depended on it. There was wildlife that depended on it,” he said. “When the blight came through, all of those things were lost.”

According to the USA TODAY story, those 1,200 saplings survived their first year under the care of the Foundation, the U.S. Forestry Service and the University of Tennessee.

But the scientists have taken steps to help their new trees survive the deadly fungus. Although the saplings are 94 percent American chestnut, they have been crossbred with Chinese chestnut trees that are resistant to the blight.

This is by no means a quick fix. It will be at least 15 to 20 years before botanists can determine if the trees are able to fend off the blight and continue to grow well enough to compete with other trees.

So let’s wish Good Luck to those little saplings and to the scientists who are nurturing them. Hopefully, the American chestnut tree will again be reaching 100 feet into the sky. With today’s focus on climate issues, the American chestnut would be a very welcome addition to the landscape as it stores carbon dioxide on a massive scale and, as such, will be an ideal – and all-natural – tool to fight climate change.

Meanwhile, if you can’t wait 20 years but would like to grace your landscape with some spectacular trees, consider these:

Black Walnut (Jugans nigra)
A majestic tree with a moderate growth rate, the Black Walnut Tree is prized for its wood veneer at maturity used in fine cabinets, gunstocks, and furniture. The Black Walnut Tree makes a wonderful shade tree, and when planted for a wood plantation, is a long-term investment. Zones 4 to 8.

Oak Gobbler Sawtooth (Quercus acutissima)
Gobbler is the same as the Sawtooth Oak but produces a smaller acorn that is desirable as a food source for wild turkeys. Oak Gobbler Sawtooth is the first choice tree to plant for wild turkey and wild game enthusiasts. Oak Gobbler Sawtooth will begin to provide acorns in 4 - 6 yrs. Zones 5 to 9.

Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)
Probably the most widely used native oak for landscaping, Pin Oak is one of the faster growing oaks, 12 to 15' over a 5 to 7 year period, reaching 75 feet at maturity and can also be used in a wetland environment. Zones 4 to 9.