[Photo] A man stand in front of a giant American Chestnut with his arms stretched out. The tree's girth is a wide as the man's outstretched arms.

The American chestnut was once one of the most important trees in the eastern United States, occupying about 25 percent of the hardwood canopy in eastern forests. By the early 1950s, the tree was virtually eliminated by an exotic fungus from Asia, called the chestnut blight.

The U.S. Forest Service, The American Chestnut Foundation, and the University of Tennessee have been conducting research and tests to produce a blight-resistant American chestnut, with aspirations of restoring the species in its grandeur, throughout the Southeast.

After a successful year’s growth in real forest conditions, researchers are now monitoring hundreds of blight-resistant American chestnut trees planted in test plots on three national forests. The young trees in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee are exceeding expectations.

These plantings are the first step in re-introducing the keystone American chestnut species back to its native range. Just as the chestnut was once an important part of the Appalachian culture and commerce, it also provided a valuable source of food for wildlife and it contributed to the health and diversity of the forest ecosystem.

LISTEN

""The familiar sounds and spirit of Appalachian music.

 

Alternative content

Playtime: 7:58 min.
File size: 14.9 MB
Credit: Music performed by Fiddlin' Foresters

PODCAST

"The chestnut tree was a vital part of southern culture."

Photo of Rex Mann

Alternative content

Playtime: 5 min.

""Transcript

VIDEO

""Dr. Stacy Clark talks about how the young chestnut seedling were developed, and how they are doing now.

[See the video tab above]

 


American Chestnut: Recent Plantings

Background

  • The American chestnut was a keystone species, that is, one of the most important tree species in the eastern United States. At one time, one of every four hardwood trees was an American chestnut. The trees grew to be 80 feet tall or more, and were known as “the redwood of the East.”
  • By the end of the 1950s, nearly four billion trees were destroyed by an accidentally imported fungus from Asia called chestnut blight.
  • For the last 26 years, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has conducted a breeding program to cross the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut to produce a blight-resistant tree that has the physical appearance of a pure American chestnut.

Project Summary

  • A traditional back-cross breeding method was used to create blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings, which are 94 percent American chestnut and 6 percent Chinese chestnut.
  • In early 2009, project partners planted American chestnut seedlings in three national forests in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. (The names of the national forests are being withheld in an effort to protect the trees). A total of 1,200 American chestnut seedlings were planted; 500 are blight resistant.
  • This is the first test planting of the blight-resistant American chestnuts in a “real world” setting.
  • The plantings represent a success story in the field of ecological restoration and reflect the power that partnerships can have in bringing this “mighty giant” back to its native region.
  • In 2010, partners will plant an additional 900-1,000 American chestnut seedlings on national forests in Tennessee and Virginia. About 700 of those trees will be blight resistant.
  • On September 23, 2009; partners released photos, video, and related information about the planting project and restoration goals on this website. This is the first time details of the test plantings have been made available to the public.

Key Concepts

  • Our goal is to re-introduce a keystone species back into its native range and create healthy forests.
  • A traditional back-cross breeding method was used to create blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings.
  • More research is needed since the blight resistance of the trees is still being tested.
  • Restoration of native tree species is a major goal of the U.S. Forest Service.
  • We want to make sure the trees will survive before we make them available to the public.

Partner Web Links


The American Chestnut: A Legacy To Come

by Meghan Jordan, TACF
from Compass magazine, Issue 11

You can still see American chestnut trees in the forests of the Southern Appalachians, but most are small, mere echoes of the giants that once fed wildlife and livestock and provided that famous spreading shade for farmhouses and city streets alike. In the first half of the 20th century, nearly 4 billion of these iconic trees were felled by a lethal fungus known as chestnut blight, and southern forests and their inhabitants were transformed by what has been called one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time.

"BroadTree and Men in Tree": Courtesy of the Forest History Society

The American chestnut tree grew tall and straight—80 feet or more high and several feet in diameter—and was often free of branches for the first 50 feet or so. Because of its strong wood, the chestnut was known in the Southern Appalachians as a “cradle-to-grave” tree; its strong, rot-resistant wood served a multitude of purposes including home building, fencing—and of course, cradles and coffins.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought a wave of visitors to the mountains of western North Carolina. Drawn by the fresh mountain air, some of these visitors decided to settle down and build summer homes, while others opened lodges and resorts. With the plentiful supply of American chestnut in local forests, builders used the wood and bark from these giants to create a rustic, all-American style that became known as the “vacation architecture” of western North Carolina.

Then the chestnut blight arrived in the Southern Appalachians, and the consequences were devastating. Mountain families were left without a major source of food and cash income; many had grown used to harvesting the nuts to sell during the holidays in cities as far away as New York. Families would fatten their hogs on sweet-tasting American chestnuts, living on the meat during the long mountain winters. Once the tree was gone, either felled by blight or cut down by landowners to salvage what they could for lumber, an entire generation of Americans would never know the beauty and grandeur of this giant.

While other SRS scientists study how well both pure and hybrid American chestnut seedlings do on a range of sites, they’re gathering the data that will guide the planting of trees in the future. They’re also adding data to that long-term record of disturbance and regrowth in American forests that the Forest Service started collecting over a century ago—data that’s coming into its own in computer models that predict where best to plant trees after a major disturbance. Other models are designed for rapid risk assessment, to let us know about a major invasion such as chestnut blight before it’s too late to do anything about it.

"Logging": Courtesy of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park Library

As the blight spread throughout the natural range of the American chestnut, many species of wildlife declined or disappeared altogether from eastern forests. Before the blight, the American chestnut was the most important wildlife food source throughout it range, especially in the mountains of western North Carolina. The single most abundant tree, its plentiful, reliable nut crop provided winter sustenance for deer, rabbits, bear, raccoons, wild boar, squirrels, mice, wood rats, wild turkeys, grouse, crows, and jays.

Today, you can walk through almost any forest in the Southern Appalachians and see the remains of the American chestnut—fallen logs and giant stumps, sometimes several feet in diameter, with young sprouts growing up out of the root collars. Some of these sprouts will grow tall, perhaps very tall, but they will almost always succumb to chestnut blight before they even flower.

In 1983, a group of scientists who had long believed that there was a strong chance of reviving the American chestnut formed The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) with the sole purpose of restoring the tree to its native forests. Inspired by the work of noted geneticist and corn breeder Charles Burnham, the group embraced the idea of using a traditional backcross plant-breeding method based on Burnham’s work with corn. Scientists, including geneticists and plant pathologists, crossed the American chestnut with its blight-resistant cousin, the Chinese chestnut. By crossing the two species, scientists were able to confer a degree of blight resistance on the American chestnut. The ultimate goal: a 15/16 pure American tree that’s resistant to chestnut blight.

From that initial group of scientists, TACF has expanded its national breeding program to include four research farms located in Meadowview, VA; more than 34,000 trees in various stages of the breeding process; and a network that includes 17 State chapters and nearly 6,000 individual members. Today, TACF is closer than ever to producing that blight-resistant tree, though the progenies of its breeding program are still in the testing phase, their value still to be determined on many forest sites over the next decade. By harvesting only the most highly blight-resistant nuts, TACF will be able to ensure that later generations of trees will survive infection and grow to full height.

The first blight-resistant seeds to be tested were harvested in 2005. As seed production is gradually increased over the next few years, these blight-resistant seeds will be distributed to cooperators to test in sites across the natural range of the American chestnut tree. At some point, TACF hopes to harvest enough blight-resistant seeds to make them available to TACF members and eventually to the general public.

At the same time, TACF is continuing its breeding program to make further gains in disease resistance, growth rate, and tree form. A new testing phase that begins in 2009 will include plantings on national forest land under a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2004 with the Forest Service. After 25 years, TACF’s plant pathologist Fred Hebard describes this phase in TACF’s national breeding program as “the end of the beginning.” While there is still much work to be done, he feels confident that the next phase of TACF’s program will bring even more success in producing a blight-resistant American chestnut.

Video: Restoring the American Chestnut

In this video shot "raw" in the field, forest researcher Stacy Clark talks about the progress of the American chestnut restoration effort.

""Download the video transcript