Roots and Shoots: Restoring the King of the Forest

My two American chestnuts enjoying the view while they wait for their turn. Photo by P. Doan

My two American chestnuts enjoying the view while they wait for their turn. (Photo by P. Doan )

Why plant a tree if you know it’s going to get infected with a disease and not quite die but never grow past a certain point? 

Existentialist questions aside, I am getting a lot of joy watching two American chestnuts grow from seed in milk cartons on my windowsill.

After speaking with Seamus Carroll, a Nelsonville resident who is a Master Gardener volunteer and Philipstown Garden Club member, I felt inspired by being part of a project with huge potential but that I might not see the results of in my lifetime. The efforts to return the chestnut tree to its former leading role in forest ecosystems will continue to cross centuries. 

Once known as the “redwood of the East” and topping out at 100 feet and 10 feet in diameter, the American chestnut was a major food source for people and wildlife and a highly desirable timber. It has a long history in the culture of first people and others who settled here. When diseased trees were first discovered in the Bronx in 1904, it was the tip of an ecological disaster that played out for the next 50 years, killing as many as 4 billion trees. 

The blight that infected the trees spread quickly throughout its native range in the northeast and southeast U.S. and then across the country. The spores move with insects and birds and are also wind-borne. Chestnut blight was introduced through the horticultural trade when Chinese and Japanese chestnuts were imported. Both are naturally resistant to blight. 

Carroll became curious when he learned about the plight of the American chestnut as a Master Gardener. He joined the American Chestnut Foundation and has given presentations on the tree and programs to breed blight resistance. The story is rich with all of the ecological threats facing many species, and it seems like it might have a hopeful ending. 

Many gardeners in the area have been planting chestnuts, as a new chapter in the chestnut’s story is about to begin. While hybridizing trials to restore the American chestnut with blight resistance haven’t been successful, a genetic modification has made a breakthrough. 

The cross-bred American and Chinese chestnut tree that was blight-resistant retained little of the original tree’s qualities. Genetic engineering trials, however, have been declared successful enough for reintroduction plans to be coming, possibly this year, after the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture finish vetting it. Much research and care is necessary to make sure that unintended consequences aren’t next. 

In the Highlands, Carroll and other gardeners have led efforts to distribute chestnut trees, like mine grown from seed, which will become the future pollinators of the blight-resistant chestnut, known as Darling 58. “All of the genetically-modified trees are clones,” Carroll explained. “They need new genetic material to become resilient in other ways.” 

The dozens of chestnut trees being planted now will bring that genetic diversity to the clones and Carroll said that the hope is that future populations will have a 50 percent to 75 percent genetic mix and be resistant to blight. 

The plan is to plant the sprouted seedling chestnut trees outdoors this season. The trees grow quite quickly and, in five years, I can expect to collect nuts from my trees. Or more realistically, the deer and other wildlife will collect nuts from my trees. Each could reach 30 feet, a fraction of its former 100-foot glory, before blight starts killing it. Within 10 to 15 years, it will die. But not completely. 

Blight girdles the tree, preventing it from moving nutrients. It doesn’t affect the roots, though. The roots will send up sprouts through the stump and the tree will try to keep growing and the blight will keep killing it. I’m not sure how long this cycle continues. The result is always the same, though. The tree never reaches maturity. 

Carroll said that the goal is to continue trying to create micropopulations in our area by planting a batch annually in years to come. These trees will be out there waiting when Darling 58 makes its way into the forest and then the generations after those trees will be fully restored Castanea dentate and blight-resistant. 

Email me at [email protected] if you’re interested in planting a not-blight-resistant American chestnut in your yard and I can connect you with Carroll, who has more ready to go. It needs at least six hours of sunlight daily and well-drained soil. It will need space to grow tall (fingers crossed) and protection from wildlife like a fence or tree tube. 

On Saturday (April 22) at 10:30 a.m., Carroll will talk about the American chestnut story and restoration efforts at the Philipstown Town Hall during the pollinator garden planting.

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