Seedlings available for stewardship

June 13, 2011|Celeste Maiorana
  • A chestnut tree blooms along the Appalachian Trail near Lambs Knoll. The dead branches are of a dead chestnut oak, which succumbed in a gypsy moth outbreak in 2007.
Photo by Celeste Maiorana

The American chestnut, a member of the beech family to which oak species also belong, was once an extremely important member of eastern North American forest communities.

Its original range extended from Maine and southern Ontario south to Mississippi and from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains and Ohio Valley. A reliable and prolific bloomer and nut producer, it was an important fall and winter food source for humans and other animals.

The high tannin content of its wood made it rot resistant. It was a large tree, faster growing than the oaks. Its wood was straight-grained, strong and easy to saw and split. It was widely used for furniture, split-rail fences, shingles, home construction, flooring, piers, plywood, paper pulp and telephone poles. The tannins were extracted from bark for tanning leather.

Woefully, in the early 1900s, a bark fungus to which the American chestnut was not resistant was introduced in its range from a shipment of Asiatic chestnut trees. The first described instance of chestnut blight was reported in New York City, within what is now the Bronx Zoo.

The airborne fungus could spread 50 miles in a year and, within decades, spread throughout the entire range, girdling and killing trees. An estimated 3 billion trees succumbed to the fungus or to the frantic logging that occurred in an effort to salvage as many trees for lumber as possible. Unfortunately, any trees that might have shown resistance were killed as well.

The tree still thrives in limited areas outside of its natural range as settlers moving west sometimes took the tree with them. Within its old range, it continues to sprout from established roots, rarely growing to more than 20 feet or becoming reproductive before succumbing to the disease. However, some trees grow large enough to bloom and produce fall chestnuts.

It is within these seeds that hope resides — the hope that this beautiful, useful tree will eventually be restored throughout the full extent of its former range.

Though not the only group dedicated to this purpose, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) is an important player. In the late 1970s, TACF founder Charles Burnham proposed the successful breeding methodology to incorporate blight resistance into the American chestnut tree.

Using Chinese chestnut trees to introduce the resistant genes, this has resulted in the production of trees with high resistance to blight after six generations— three backcrosses of the first crossbred generation to natives, crossing the third backcross generation within itself, and a final cross within their progeny. They are about 94 percent native. The generation time can be as little as five or six years.

Lately, TACF has partnered with Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the State Association of Maryland Forest Conservancy District Boards and the local forestry boards to promote this restoration. 

Groves of 50 native trees, not resistant but descendants of parent trees that reliably grow well enough to produce seed, are being planted throughout the area — in town parks, on school grounds, and private property. These trees will be used for observation, and for pollen and seed collection.

Each year about 1,000 seedling trees are available in Maryland. We are always looking for groups or individuals who are interested in planting, tending and monitoring a grove, or helping out with the maintenance of an existing one.

Celeste Maiorana is a member of the Washington County Forest Conservancy District Board. Go to for more information.

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