The new American chestnut: restoring native forests

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The new American chestnut: restoring native forests

Before the turn of the 20th century, the American Chestnut tree occupied a significant place in the Appalachian landscape, both physically and culturally. The towering, hardwood trees kept forests lush from Maine to Mississippi, providing a cash crop in areas _3681431026often too rocky or hilly for other significant forms of farming.

Today, however, the iconic chestnut "roasting on an open fire" likely arrived from Italy to satisfy the U.S. holiday season. And the healthiest, tallest chestnut trees found in the Appalachian mountain range claim roots in Chinese or Japanese transplants of the species.

Since its first North American detection in Bronx Zoo in 1904, chestnut blight has meant near annihilation of the species, demoting this symbol of the American landscape into understory shrubs, explained Mila Kirkland, director of communications at the American Chestnut Society.

"You can still find large trees out there from time to time. For one reason or another they are lucky and made it, but usually they’ve got blight on them and will probably die," Kirkland told

"In their place, other species have come up and filled the niche that American chestnuts used to have, like oaks and maples."

To view historic and current photos of the American chestnut, visit our photo gallery, courtesy of the American Chestnut Foundation.

The Restoration Chestnut

While these replacement trees serve their own purpose in the new ecosystem, Kirkland described a "prolific" flowering and fruiting from the native chestnut that alternative species have not been able to replace.

American Chestnut trees produce fruit later in the year, around June or July, avoiding much of the frosts suffered by other species. The trees’ absence has meant a significant loss of food for wildlife and the local population, as well as a source of sturdy wood.

Recovery of this niche role has served as the guiding purpose of the American Chestnut Foundation for 30 years now. After six generations of cross breeding, the foundation has developed a promising, mostly American alternative that could replenish forests with this hardwood species.

The Restoration Chestnut 1.0 has the straight, strong wood and small, sweet nuts of its American ancestor, with one small difference – the tree is one sixteenth Chinese.

"Basically, we crossed an American chestnut tree with a Chinese chestnut tree, which is resistant to the blight. Chestnut blight came over from Asia where it is native. The Chinese tree evolved over time with the blight fungus," Kirkland said.

"We crossed a pure American with a Chinese and got a 50-50 cross ... You back-cross the product with an American chestnut so that you are strengthening the American qualities but hold on to the Chinese resistance. So after six generations of this process, we have a tree that’s 15/16ths American chestnut and 1/16th Chinese.”

This beta version of the new American chestnut has been made available for planting since 2009. A reported 150,000 versions of the tree have been planted in 500 locations across the U.S. on both public and private lands.

Historically, an estimated four billion American chestnut trees populated the U.S. East Coast.

"We work with the forest service and with private land owners to test and see how these trees are doing, how blight resistant are they. We know it’s not over yet and the fight is not done," Kirkland said.

"So once we pinpoint the most blight-resistant family line, we will continue to breed with those trees, creating a stronger and stronger, resistant tree."

Years down the road, the foundation expects to develop the Restoration Chestnut 2.0 and even 3.0, eventually creating a breed worthy of both reforestation and commercial development.

"We haven’t ventured into commercial purposes yet and that’s primarily because we don’t want to put a tree out there for commercial use until we know it’s going to survive well. So we are planting them out in the forest, in orchard settings," she said.

"Chestnuts need a lot of light to grow, so we’re also planting a lot of our trees on reclaimed mine land that otherwise might be planted with non-native grasses.

"Really there used to be a forest there and a hundred years ago, there used to be American chestnuts there. They are great places to test out our trees because there is plenty of sunlight."

Although many years of breeding remain ahead, Kirkland said she held hope of seeing Appalachian forests filled with American chestnuts – a reality only her grandparents' generation might remember.

"I’m not sure how long it will take. I think we’ve made a huge deal of progress in the last 30 years and 30 years from now, I think we will be very close to seeing healthy chestnut forests. But I think we’ve really made huge leaps and bounds," she said.

"I am 30 years old this year. I hope before I die that I will see thriving populations of chestnuts, or at least my children will."

Photo: American Chestnut Foundation

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