Campus is home to chestnut tree project

April 22, 2002|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

It took only a few decades for an Asian immigrant fungus known commonly as the chestnut blight to wipe out an icon of the American forest - the chestnut tree.

As late as the turn of the last century, giant American Chestnut trees covered 80 percent of the hardwood forests along the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Ohio, said Beth Brantley, instructor of forestry at Penn State Mont Alto. Brantley, 33, finished her Ph. D in plant pathology in December.

The blight was discovered in America in 1904. By the 1930s, the chestnut had virtually disappeared from the American scene.

Brantley watches over an experimental chestnut tree plantation that was planted from seeds on the Mont Alto campus in 2000.

All are still little more than twigs. The tallest stands about four feet.

"Chestnuts are fast-growing trees. These should be six to eight feet tall by now," Brantley said.


She said she takes some of the blame for their stunted growth.

"I didn't water them enough. They're doing better this year."

Most of the trees in the little plantation have survived, but their prognosis is not good. The same blight that killed their forebears still lurks in the atmosphere.

"The spores of the fungus that causes the blight are all around," Brantley said.

"I hope these trees last for 10 or 15 years, but they probably all are going to die. Maybe one in 1,000 has the genetic makeup to survive."

Foresters look in the woods for disease-resistant chestnut trees. When they find one, they collect its seeds and pollen for the next generation, she said.

The trees at Mont Alto are a demonstration planting, Brantley said.

"They're here so people can see the different kinds and to see how long they will live," she said.

One row contains American chestnut trees and a second row has Chinese chestnut trees. There are four rows of hybrids and trees that have been genetically backcrossed to see if their strain is disease resistant.

According to The American Chestnut Foundation's Web site, the foundation has been working since the mid-1980s to breed a blight-resistant American chestnut tree. Recent developments in genetics and plant pathology show new promise, the Web site says.

The idea is to backcross the American Chestnut with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut to produce a hybrid. The hybrid is then backcrossed with another American Chestnut to end up with a tree that's three-fourths American chestnut and one-fourth Chinese chestnut, according to the foundation.

The foundation's ultimate goal is to end up with a tree that's 15/16ths American chestnut and that even experts could not tell from an original.

"It's more decay-resistant than redwood," Brantley said. "It was one of the best trees for timber."

It was used to build homes, barns and fences, and it was good for firewood.

"Chestnut trees have a beautiful form, straight and tall. There's no tree like it today," Brantley said.

Many mid- to late 19th-century Pennsylvania barns that stand today have frameworks built from chestnut. Beams and planks removed from old barns bring high prices as a sought-after building material today.

The fruit of the tree - shiny, dark brown chestnuts - provided an excellent food supply for man and wildlife. They were eaten roasted and as ingredients in recipes.

They were fed to pigs and cattle. Wildlife, including birds, bears and squirrels, thrived on chestnuts.

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