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American Chestnut

25 June 2013 4:21 pm2 commentsViews: 71

The American Chestnut was a national icon.

Until the early 1900′s the American Chestnut (Castanca dentata) dominated more than 200 million acres of forest from Maine to Florida and west to the Ohio River valley. There were an estimated 4 billion chestnut trees standing at the time. This tree was a valued part of the national livelihood and culture (“Chestnuts roasting on a open fire,” anyone?).

By the 1950′s, American Chestnuts were virtually wiped from the forest floor. The culprit of the surprising and swift destruction of this specie’s glorious reign was due to a fungus, which likely entered the country on imported Chinese chestnut that is naturally resistant to the blight. The fungus disrupts the flow of nutrients within the tree and kills the above ground parts of the tree.

While 100-foot chestnuts of days gone by are entirely off the map, resilient little trees can be found throughout forests in the east. Really? Yes, really. Here is a picture of me with a live American Chestnut tree just yesterday:

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Because the blight only kills the above ground portion of a tree, the root base of many trees have survived and been able to sprout anew. Most only reach a few feet high before having the life squeezed from them again. But specimens succeed in growing large enough to sprout and produce seed nuts and clippings for scientists.

I first learned about restoration work with the American Chestnut at The American Chestnut Foundation’s (TACF) booth at 2013 Trail Days. This foundation is doing valuable research into existing chestnut trees and work towards restoration.

It’s important to be able to identify chestnuts so that you can help with the restoration effort. Maximizing genetic diversity is important for the efforts in breeding blight resistance chestnuts. The local organizations of TACF collect data on American chestnuts that have been spotted by people in the woods, such as you on a hike.

The knowledge of more trees helps keep this biological diversity for breeding and is most effective the more people know to look of for chestnuts and report those of notable size.

For weeks since learning of the TACF, I have been noticing chestnut sprouts while hiking in the AT. Most have been 1-6 feet tall but they were mesmerizing to find and touch what I had not long before thought to be totally wiped from the forest.

On my most recent AT hike, I was absolutely floored to find one that was 18 feet tall and more than 3″ in diameter in the trunk. I spent longer than I care to admit basking in the glory of this tree and the others I found around it. In my mind it was basically like walking though the woods and spotting a living, breathing woolly mammoth. I could not keep myself from smiling the remainder of the day.

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The TACF has used cross breeding American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts and then breeding back the purity to 15/16ths American chestnut. This hopefully will allow researchers to develop an American chestnut tree that is more blight resistant. Another organization, the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation, seeks to breed pure bred American chestnuts for reintroduction.

Keeping your eyes peeled for wild American chestnuts is a rewarding and educational experience. All it takes is learning to identify the leaves and you are ready to help this American icon any time you identify one.

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