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Restoration Efforts May Mean More ‘Chestnuts Roasting….’

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a popular line from a holiday song, are a tradition that at one time seemed imperiled by the decreasing population of chestnut trees. (USDA photo)

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a popular line from a holiday song, are a tradition that at one time seemed imperiled by the decreasing population of chestnut trees. (USDA photo)

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” is a line from a song that conjures up fond holiday memories for some Americans. For others, the joy of roasting chestnuts has yet to be experienced. But the lack of American chestnuts could change in the coming years, thanks to some very dedicated people.

The U.S. Forest Service and its partners may be one step closer to restoring the American chestnut tree to parts of the mountains and forests of the southern United States. Since 2009, they planted close to 1,000 potentially-blight resistant American chestnut trees on national forests in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

To date, more than 80 percent of the American chestnut backcross hybrid saplings planted in the national forests have survived. Most of the trees are healthy, growing steadily and showing differing levels of resistance, a sign of encouragement to the hopeful community of people working to return the tree to its native range.

The once-young seedlings have reached an average height of 8 feet and have overcome what Stacy Clark, a Forest Service scientist at the agency’s Southern Research Station, calls “planting shock” by developing a strong root system and adapting to their new environment.

Before the introduction of the chestnut blight in the early 20th century, American chestnut trees dominated forests of the eastern United States. Known as the Redwood of the East, they often reached towering heights of 150 feet. At one time, one in every four hardwood trees in the East was an American chestnut, according to estimates.

By the 1950s, the blight had killed billions of trees and left the species virtually non-existent. Today, any chestnuts found in the Eastern forests never grow beyond a few feet tall and rarely flower. Chestnut trees have reached a “genetic dead-end” in the United States because of their inability to reproduce.

“One level of success is to develop a tree that will survive long enough to naturally pollinate and reproduce,” said Bryan Burhans, president of The American Chestnut Foundation. “The Forest Service and its scientists work with the foundation on a number of different levels, in the field and with planning and monitoring. There are all kinds of ways that we have worked together.”

Burhans says he is optimistic about the future of the American chestnut hybrid, but admits that the trees planted in national forests face challenges in the coming years. As the trees continue to mature, their blight-resistance will be put to the test.

Meanwhile, Clark, foundation scientists and others will continue to look for conditions and other useful information that will help to return chestnuts to the East.

“There is still a lot to learn about these trees,” said Clark. “And there is a lot more work to be done in restoring the American chestnut.”

With ongoing refinement of the hybrid trees, collaboration with partners and with hope, widespread restoration of the American chestnut may become a reality in the next 100 years.

It may also offer opportunity for a favorite holiday pastime to re-emerge as part of celebrating the season with song and sustenance.

A University of Tennessee research technician measures a chestnut tree planted in 2011. (U.S. Forest Service)

A University of Tennessee research technician measures a chestnut tree planted in 2011. (U.S. Forest Service)

7 Responses to “Restoration Efforts May Mean More ‘Chestnuts Roasting….’”

  1. JAJansenJr says:

    What citizen science opportunities exist to help with the effort to restore the Chestnut tree? I’d like to hear from someone at USDA. Thanks.

  2. Dennis says:

    Does the USDA have plans to plant chestnuts in central Wisconsin? If so I have some open acerage to try planting the trees

  3. Don Roxby says:

    How cab I obtain seedlings to plan on my property in Northern Alabama?

  4. Sara Fitzsimmons says:

    Hi JaJansenJr. I work for The American Chestnut Foundation. We have many opportunities for members and volunteers to get involved with various aspects of our program. I recommend you get in touch with our local chapters and/or your local science coordinator. We have local contacts in every state and four staff persons to handle more scientific inquiries.
    http://www.acf.org/Chapters.php
    http://www.acf.org/Staff.php
    Sara (Northern Appalachian Regional Office, TACF)

  5. Michael French says:

    Hi Don,

    The quick answer is to become a sponsoring member of The American Chestnut Foundation. We offer “Restoration Chestnut 1.0″ seed and/or seedlings to our sponsors if they are interested. We also have state chapters throughout American chestnut’s native range and are sometimes looking for orchard growers as well, so that may be another option. More information about our breeding program and restoration effort can be found at http://www.acf.org.

    Kindest regards,
    Michael

    Forester – The American Chestnut Foundation

  6. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your interest in USDA’s efforts to restore American chestnut to our landscapes! Forest Service scientists are studying genetics, blight resistance and survivability of blight resistant seedlings across the Eastern United States. The Forest Service is also a “most favored recipient” of the American Chestnut Foundation’s (TACF) chestnut material, and resulting seedlings have been planted on at least six National Forests in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA has provided a half-million-dollar Conservation Innovation Grant to the Foundation and its partners to fund the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, which will establish forest planting, including TACF’s potentially blight-resistant American chestnut, on 12 reclaimed mine sites across five states.

    Want to get involved? A great place to start is the American Chestnut Foundation website (www.acf.org), where you will find contact information for state chapters and regional science coordinators (http://www.acf.org/Chapters.php).

    -Kathryn Sosbe, Office of Communication, Forest Service

  7. David Fisher says:

    I have about 60 1yr old full American Chestnut trees that will be planted in the burned area around Bastrop Texas in the coming weeks. There have never been chestnut trees in this area, so maybe there isn’t blight.

    Hopefully in the future we will be able to obtain some of the new hybrid blight resistant chestnuts to plant among the pure chestnuts, that is should they survive.

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