But because of its size and rather coarse look, and the possible litter of the prickly nut husks, it might be best-suited to a woodlot or semi-wild area. Once, their creamy June bloom so festooned the eastern hardwood forests that they looked from afar “like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface,” wrote the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie. There are now only 100 or so that remain. An American Chestnut Tree planted inside Bernheim’s Arboretum Prior to the 1900s, the American chestnut tree once dominated over 200 million acres of the eastern hardwood forest from Maine to Georgia, and west to the Ohio River Valley. The profound impact forests had on one of America’s greatest authors and his writing. (Credit: Melissa Boyle). *Are you enjoying this post? Hebard was even a model for a character in local writer Barbara Kingsolver’s best selling novel, Prodigal Summer: The American chestnut’s distinctive leaves, burs, and nuts. If you could custom design the ideal tree species, you couldn’t come up with a better one than American chestnut. The American chestnut was once a very common tree but is now extremely rare due to chestnut blight. . Today as we prowl the forests, its hard to think in the past tense and visualize that Castanea dentata, the American To develop resistance to the blight, young trees are inoculated with samples of the chestnut blight fungus. “This means that our goal after 25 years has moved from breeding a chestnut that can survive to working on landscape-level restoration.”. (Credit: American Chestnut Restoration Foundation/USDAFS). “The American chestnut, considering it’s been around millions of years, can in the long term probably take care of itself as long as wild woodlands and rodents and jays exist to forage and spread the nuts.” Paillet wonders whether it’s possible for the chestnut to someday be seen as virtually “invasive;” a problem, he writes, “I would gladly live with.”, — Tom Horton writes from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The American chestnut was once the king of the forest. The “Amherst tree” is so large, so gnarled with age, and so rare that, like a few dozen other long-surviving chestnuts, it has been named. There’s also an ancient chestnut tree that Fred Hebard directs you to on your route home from Meadowview. A modest but historic planting of several hundred little chestnuts has completed their first full growing season in the wild on U.S. Forest Service lands in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. But it’s clear this is more than a job to him. Tax ID: 53-0196544, © 2021 American Forests. All Rights Reserved. Once these crosses produced trees that were carrying chiefly the American chestnut genome — as much as 90 percent — they were ... state and national sites in the chestnut’s historical range. “By the time a white oak acorn has made a baseball bat, the chestnut stump has made a railroad tie,” one advocate boasted. ”. The Romans ranked chestnuts alongside the olive tree and the grapevine as plants important to civilization. Chestnut hybrids, grown at the Hashawa Environmental Center in Carroll County, MD. For more details on the American chestnut tree, please visit our Field Guide page. Approximately 15⁄16ths American and 1⁄16th Chinese, “It’s probably not the best tree we can achieve, but it’s good enough to start planting,” says Kim Steiner, director of Penn State University’s arboretum, and a science advisor to the Chestnut Foundation. Tennessee. The USDA had been crossing American to Chinese chestnuts generation after generation. Lifespan American chestnuts that are not blight-resistant live only about five years. Backcrossing was how the King Ranch bred its famed Santa Gertrudis cattle to produce excellent meat while surviving the harsh south-Texas environment. Researchers say they are strong performers, reaching three to seven feet, some flowering at an earlier age than normal. The American chestnut is not extinct. In Europe, such “hypovirulence” effectively stopped the blight from destroying that continent’s chestnuts. The wood from the tree was fairly light but strong and was fairly easy to work with. Their native range encompasses most of the Appalachian mountain range, as far north as southern Maine and south as far as Alabama. Many clear-cuts literally explode with long-suppressed chestnuts racing for the light. The American chestnut is native to southern and eastern parts of the United States, particularly along the Appalachian Mountains. A mature chestnut’s sweet, carroty-tasting nuts—as many as 6,000 from a single tree — were nearly a perfect food for both settlers and their livestock, as well as an array of wildlife from turkeys to bears. Today, more than 100 years after a blight forced it into extinction, scientists are resurrecting this once-great tree. “I have no problem with what Fred is doing trying to produce a hybrid,” he says, “but a lot of people also just want to bring back the pure American tree.”. The little trees represent the sixth generation of a breeding program begun by the 6,000-member ACF in 1989. Scientists have found naturally occurring viruses in the forest that are, in effect, a blight of the chestnut blight, infecting it and weakening its destructive power. “They have some natural resistance, they are infected by the hypovirulence, and they have very good growing environments.”. Interpreting Wetland Status. Unfortunately very few specimens of these trees are left now. History of the American Chestnut American chestnuts, giants that could grow up to 125 feet tall and 16 feet wide, once dominated the forests of Appalachia. “Meanwhile,” he says, “we’re going to plant. These trees once reached the height of 30.5 … Fred Hebard says he’s seen understory chestnuts only an inch in diameter that show 60 years of growth rings, followed by growth that approaches an inch a year after they get access to light. Range. After decades, their closest success was a single hybrid, dubbed the Clapper tree after its breeder. Reading the USDA’s published results, Burnham was shocked to realize that its scientists, including future Green Revolution Nobelist Norman Borlaug, had ignored a basic tenet of breeding resistance into crops. Their bold-grained, blondish wood was strong, easily worked, and extremely rot-resistant, used in everything from barn timbers to pianos, split-rail fences to fine furniture (in which it was often veneered with more fashionable woods like mahogany). “Oh, they all died.” These “redwoods of the East,” as they were sometimes called, made up between one quarter and one half … Its nuts were consumed by animals and people alike, and it was widely used as timber. American chestnut was once the most important tree of the Eastern North American Hardwood Forest. It is present in parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania. The American chestnut tree reigned over 200 million acres of eastern woodlands from Maine to Florida, and from the Piedmont plateau in the Carolinas west to the Ohio Valley, until succumbing to a lethal fungus infestation, known as the chestnut blight, during the first half of the 20th century. Last year, Hebard challenged his first few sixth-generation “restoration” chestnuts by inoculating them with blight. Map Legend. By the 1950s destruction was complete. Special Concern. With this latest hybrid, unofficially dubbed the “Restoration” chestnut, breeders feel they have a tree with enough of the Chinese chestnut’s natural blight resistance to have a shot at surviving; but also a tree that is virtually indistinguishable in form, growth rate, and wood quality from a pure American chestnut. 1220 L Street, NW, Suite 750Washington, DC 20005, Phone: 202.737.1944 It was a magnificent tree used for lumber and for food. American chestnut is a member of the beech family. The American chestnut was one of the largest trees in the forests of eastern North America. When cross-pollinated with another chestnut tree by an insect pollinator, the female flowers develop into spiny bur-like fruits enclosing one to several chestnuts. Fax: 202.737.2457 Consider supporting American Forests to help us continue our work to restore, and grow healthy and resilient forests and city canopies all over the country! The majestic American chestnut tree was once common throughout the forests of eastern North America, providing sweet, meaty chestnuts for humans and wildlife. That’s the merest wisp of what Peattie described; “But we’re excited,” says Meghan Jordan of the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), which supplied the trees. “Pretty good.”. Interactive Koppen Climate Classification Map for the United States; Endangered. An estimated 4 billion American chestnuts, up to 1/4 of the hardwood tree population, grew within this range. (Credit: American Chestnut Foundation), “He was haunted by the ghosts of these old chestnuts, by the great emptiness their extinction had left in the world. American chestnut (Castanea dentata), whose native range is shown at left, is highly susceptible to the disease. American chestnut - Castanea dentata Native Range Border Related Maps. And next spring in Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County, about 500 more of the blight-resistant chestnuts will be planted on a private, cutover forest plot, Steiner says. Complementary programs would be added throughout the historic range of the chestnut as the foundation’s state chapters grew to include 15 states. It was some hundred years ago that these chestnut trees dominated the forested hills and mountains. A pure Chinese chestnut, resistant to the blight. American Forests Reflects on Florence Harding During 2019 International Women's DayPerhaps Florence Mabel. The American chestnut rose 100, sometimes 120, feet above the loamy forest floor. Nuss has cloned the hypovirulence and inserted it into a transgenic chestnut blight whose effects on trees are far less severe. Griffin, an emeritus professor of plant pathology, has been working since 1973 grafting tissue from old survivors (and younger ones that have made it to about 15 inches in diameter) onto American chestnut rootstock, crossing these to one another. Scientific Name Scientifically, American chestnut is called Castanea Dentate Description American chestnut plant bears three nuts enfolded in each […] Remnant root systems are resilient and continue to send up new shoots that eventually succumb to the blight. Reaching over 30 metres tall and living up to 500 years, the chestnut was known as “the queen of eastern American forest trees.” So what happened to what was once also called the “redwood of the East?” “And?” He explains that such a dose probably would have killed even resistant Chinese chestnuts. One fourth of this forest was composed of native chestnut trees. Hebard, now 61, says at best it will be decades before it’s clear how successful he has been. get minor bark infections that can produce inoculum. Status Endangered “And how do you feel about that?” Native range of the American chestnut tree (castanea dentata). And before they died, the little chestnuts exhibited about the same response to the blight, forming only slight cankers, as he would have expected of naturally resistant Chinese chestnuts. He understood that on his slow march toward his heavenly reward, he would spend as many years as possible growing and backcrossing the American with the Chinese chestnut . Just as the chestnut blight appears here to stay, so does the movement to restore the chestnut to its place in the forest. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a large, monoecious deciduous tree of the beech family native to eastern North America. “It was just a preliminary test, with no controls, not a scientific experiment,” he says. American Chestnut is a vigorous fast-growing tree. Only hundreds of latest-generation nuts have been available to date, but this fall’s harvest was 13,000, and the numbers will grow geometrically. Overview Information American chestnut is a plant. Burnworth explains that American chestnuts have an extraordinary ability to “release,” or spurt toward the light when surrounding canopy trees die. In the next couple years, Hebard says, there will be larger-scale, more formal experiments testing the latest generation of trees’ resistance alongside Chinese chestnuts. . Then breeders wait years for the offspring to grow, inoculate them with blight, and select as few as one out of every 150 trees that show the best resistance and most American-like growth habit. American chestnut. But now comes the best hope in over a century for restoring the species that once comprised a quarter of all eastern hardwoods, with economic and environmental values unmatched by anything in today’s forest. It has elongate leaves tapered at both ends and large teeth along the margins. Learn how to identify American chestnuts and send us a sample to support our research. More than a thousand place names that contain the word chestnut remain today throughout the Appalachians, which were the heart of the species’ range. This species once was a dominant … Wetland Status. Scientists think the problems lie partly in the large number of strains in which both blight and hypovirulence occur. Burnham and other scientists in 1983 founded the private, nonprofit American Chestnut Foundation to carry out a scientific program of backcross breeding. Known as “redwoods of the East,” chestnuts grew fast and big, and lived long, reaching 100 feet in height, with diameters exceeding 12 feet, and attaining an average age of two to three centuries. Planting will continue in national forests. The American chestnut is a broad-leaf tree belonging to the beech family. If there was an “Aha!” moment in bringing American chestnuts back this far from the brink, it came around 1980 when Charles Burnham, a corn geneticist, read of the shutdown of a decades-long, failed attempt by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to breed a resistant chestnut. The main concession to how the forest has changed since the chestnut last dominated will be a sturdy deer fence (“Please, make deer reduction the lead of your story,” implored one chestnut breeder). Chestnuts dominated eastern hardwood forests not only in numbers; an estimated three to four billion trees across more than 30 million acres. Their profusion of bloom supported honeybees and other pollinators. He hit them hard with a massive dose, much more severe than they’d have received in nature, he says. You cross Chinese and American parent trees, then breed successive generations back to the desired (American) parent, eventually winnowing out all the undesired Chinese characteristics (shrubby growth, for example) except for its disease-resistance. That’s the merest wisp of what Peattie described; “But we’re excited,” says Meghan Jordan of the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), which supplied the trees. An Incredible Tree. American Chestnut Habitat The graphic shows the range.... Eastern North America, from Mississippi to Maine mostly on the spine of mountainous uplands that slopes in an upwards, northeasterly direction from the Southland. The American chestnut is a large tree with brown, smooth buds and twigs. Burnham had always assumed that program, which crossed thousands of American and Chinese trees since the 1930s, would eventually succeed. (Credit: American Chestnut Restoration Foundation/USDAFS). This article was published in the Winter 2010 issue of American Forests magazine. All evidence is that if the blight can be overcome, the chestnut can outcompete most any other hardwood to become part of the forest canopy. At the University of Maryland’s Biotechnology Center in Shadyside, virologist Donald Nuss has been dissecting the American strains of hypovirulence, trying to understand why they don’t spread as easily in the wild here as they do in Europe. (Credit: Vicky Sawyer). American chestnut was once a dominant and widespread canopy tree through many parts of the country, its range stretching from Mississippi to Maine. Plant and Tree Range Distribution Maps; Castanea dentata Map ; Castanea dentata - American chestnut Range Map. That annual exuberance of the American chestnut began fading from the landscape around 1904, when a blight imported on Asian chestnuts began rampaging from Maine to Georgia. A Purdue University study shows that the growth rate, size and longevity of chestnuts let them store more carbon, and at a faster rate, than any other hardwood. Then the chestnut blight came in and began to decimate this species in the early 1900s. deep) as soon as the soil is workable. There is a lot of incompatibility, which retards spreading; also, European chestnuts probably have a little more natural resistance than American chestnuts, which allows the hypoviruses to work more easily there. (Courtesy photo American Chestnut Foundation) Sometimes reaching a height of more than 100 feet tall with trunk diameters often well over 10 feet, the American chestnut was the giant of the eastern U.S. forests. He cites pollen profiles from North American lakes that show virtually all hemlocks simply vanished from the forests some 5,000 years ago — probably of a disease still unknown — and then reappeared throughout their range a few centuries later. If trees could talk...a region's history as told by its ancient trees. His funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, which is interested in how viruses work; the chestnut hypovirulence is one of the easiest ways to study this, Nuss says. It is also adaptable to different soils and climates, and established plants can withstand drought. Before the species was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease, it was one of the most important forest trees throughout its range. It is the only species of chestnut native to Canada. A chestnut with a disease-resistant wheat gene has already been produced experimentally by researchers William Powell and Charles Maynard at the State University of New York’s Environmental Science and Forestry school in Syracuse. The chestnut was a common species in the deciduous forests of the upland Appalachian region, which stretches from Maine to northern Mississippi and includes southern New York. Meanwhile, the original blight is able to remain dormant in dozens of non-chestnut tree species, from which it respreads by wind and by birds. However, the species was devastated by chestnut blight, a fungal disease that came from introduced chestnut trees from East Asia. Most were nearly barren of branches for 50 feet or better, living up to what would become their nickname, “the redwood of the East.” These were massive trunks, some 16 … Furthermore, they believe that the progeny of these plants should all exhibit natural blight resistance. Researchers have estimated that 1 out of every 4 trees in the Appalachian Mountains was an American chestnut. When you decide to start planting American chestnut trees, it’s important to begin early in the spring. The key is a concept known as backcrossing. For example, a Green Mountain National Forest planting, ma… Free! With the state chapters, we’ll put millions of these trees throughout their range.” They will go, Hebard says, on available lands in national forests, on private property, and also to reforest abandoned strip-mined sites across Appalachia in a partnership with the federal Office of Surface Mining. With the chestnuts, it meant carefully selecting parent stock (cloned offspring of the USDA’s Clapper tree were among the first generation), then laboriously hand-pollinating the trees, and bagging female flowers in plastic to keep out undesired pollen. American chestnut grew over a wide range in eastern North America. Scientists believe that by crossing an American chestnut tree with its blight-resistant cousin, the Chinese chestnut, the tree will retain both its American traits (e.g., tall-growing) and the gene for blight resistance. Even the Boy Scouts pitched in to try and save the chestnuts, scouring forests for blighted trees as part of a multi-state effort to create an infection-free zone. One of the funders of that project is Duke Energy, which is interested in the chestnut’s potential to reclaim coal-mining land, but also in its promise for sequestering carbon dioxide. There is plenty of evidence that genetic resistance to disease can be recovered by crossing even trees with relatively low resistance; but it is taking awhile — “We’re about halfway there,” he ventures. Far more numerous are chestnuts that sprout from the roots of felled forest giants, only to die in a decade or two from the deadly fungus that may never go away. American chestnut. European chestnut (C. sativa) is also quite susceptible. It’s possible that hypovirulence might help, in Hebard’s words, “to put the, These restoration chestnuts at Meadowview Research Farm show resistance to the blight. It was most commonly found on hillsides and ridges. He expects that this will allow researchers to produce a chestnut that is pure American except for the addition of a few genes from the Chinese chestnut that confer disease-resistance. The American chestnut tree was extremely useful to those who lived in its range. Plans have already been laid to take the Meadowview program through another few generations of crossing to get an even better chestnut 20 years hence. Caring for American Chestnut Trees. The extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the near extinction of bison — all around the same time — were in the same ballpark. 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