State trying to bring back chestnut trees
The American chestnut tree once was The Tree in the United States east of the Mississippi River, its stately, broad 80-to-100-foot-tall canopy and trunks to 10-foot-diameter dominating the seemingly endless forest.
The trees produced superb mast crops to feed all manner of woodland wildlife – bear, deer, turkeys, and more — and their lightweight timber was highly prized for durability and highly valued for the grain, ease of working, and rot resistance. It was the ideal tree; nature has chosen wisely.
Then at the turn of the 20th century came a fungus imported by man on wood from Asia. In the space of a few decades it claimed more than three billion trees and changed forever the face of eastern U.S. forests.
The interest among foresters and forest lovers to recover the chestnut has never gone away, however, and some isolated specimens of American chestnut have survived the blight to this day. One such specimen stands on Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve on western Lake Erie east of Sandusky. But these all have the fatal flaw of their kind, lack of resistance to that deadly fungus, and only their remote isolation has allowed them to survive. Sprouting chestnut “stumps” in former chestnut stands never survive past perhaps 30 feet in height before being killed by the fungus, which now is endemic.
But years of patient of genetic backcrossing and hybridizing with the closely related Chinese chestnut have produced a 94 percent true American chestnut hybrid with fungal resistance. And therein lies recent news:
The Ohio Division of Forestry recently planted 1,000 hybrid chestnut saplings on three sites that it manages: The Clear Fork Gorge Overlook area at Mohican State Park, the Scioto Trail State Forest fire tower, and the Waterloo State Wildlife Area. The planting is the initial effort by the state in a regional move to re-establish the native American chestnut, this in partnership with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF).
“We are happy to be a part of helping to return the American chestnut to landscapes across Ohio and the region,” said Robert Boyles, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and state forester. “The American chestnut was such an important component of our country’s eastern hardwood forest, and that is why great efforts are being made to resurrect this great tree to our woodlands.”
Assisting state forestry, wildlife, and parks personnel with the plantings, were volunteers from the Mohican Trails Club at Mohican State Park. Tree shelter-tubes were installed on the young trees to provide a greenhouse-like atmosphere and offer protection from wildlife browsing and to promote growth and increase seedling survival.
Year-old seedlings were donated by TACF, and the foundation is dedicated to the restoration of the American chestnut through scientific breeding and cooperative research. These seedlings, known as “Restoration” chestnuts, were bred at TACF’s Meadowview Research Farms in Virginia and were grown at the Clements State Tree Nursery in West Virginia.
It will be several human generations before these public plantings will achieve canopy status, if they are allowed to mature to such heights and breadth without being “harvested” for timber. Few of us will not live to see it. But it is a hopeful start and a nod to the future.