The American Chestnut is being restored
Gary Jacob planted his Chestnut orchard in 2004 in association with the local chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). The foundation has worked at a national level since 1983 to develop an American chestnut resistant to chestnut blight, an Asian fungus introduced in the early 20th century that nearly eliminated the chestnut from American forests.
Before the blight, the American chestnut made up one out of every four trees within its range. Its plentiful nuts provided food for humans and animals alike, while its giant stature, fast growth, and strong, rot resistant wood made it ideal for building barns or holding telephone wires. According to Jacob, some poles from before the blight still exist today.
Despite being reduced from one of the most common trees in the Appalachians to one of the rarest, not all American chestnuts succumbed to the blight. New growth often shoots from the base of blighted trees, and, in ideal conditions, can grow mature enough to flower. It’s because of these few remaining specimens that TACF may eventually be able to reach its goal of restoring the American chestnut to the Eastern forest.
TACF’s strategy for saving the tree is complicated. It begins with hybridizing wild American chestnuts — often called mother trees — with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts. The result is trees that are half American and half Chinese that have 50 percent of the genetic materials needed to resist the blight.
Then, a careful, multigenerational cross-fertilization and selection process between the American/Chinese hybrids and more wild American chestnuts dilutes Chinese characteristics while maintaining the half-resistance to the blight. Finally, the semi-blight-resistant, mostly-American chestnuts are cross-fertilized with each other. If the selection process throughout the progression is true, then the most resistant of the resulting trees will be almost entirely American chestnut and have full immunity from the blight.
Medway orchard image courtesy ecoMass.
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