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For American Chestnut Trees, People Help in the Art of Pollination

Clint Neel of Tennessee helps with pollinations at The American Chestnut Foundation’s orchards in Meadowview, Virginia. Photo by TACF.

Clint Neel of Tennessee helps with pollinations at The American Chestnut Foundation’s orchards in Meadowview, Virginia. Photo by TACF.

Nature has transformers! With time and the help of bees, butterflies, birds and other critters, some flowers change into seeds. Sometimes, flowers in trees transform into nuts.

But sometimes these transformers need help. That’s where a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to The American Chestnut Foundation came into play.

The foundation competed for and was awarded a grant from NRCS to plant and grow genetically diverse, blight-resistant chestnuts and other high quality hardwoods to reintroduce and maintain forests on reclaimed mine sites in Appalachia.  The American chestnut trees were once common, but, nearly vanished from the landscape because of an accidentally introduced fungus in the late 1800s.

Part of this maintenance includes helping the tree become pollinated. No, the foundation’s staff and volunteers don’t fly. But they do rely on ladders and bucket trucks to aid them in reaching these chestnut tree flowers.

Imagine helping these American chestnuts flower by flower, tree by tree! The foundation uses “Lawson pollinating bags” to keep unwanted pollen away from chestnut tree flowers.  Some corn farmers are familiar with these wax-covered paper bags, using them for similar, protected pollinations.

These bags are placed over female flowers before they become receptive to pollen.  Once they open and are receptive to pollen, foundation workers remove the bags, hand-apply the chestnut cross-pollen, and replace the bags over the flowers.  Foundation workers even label the bags to identify the chestnut cross-pollen they use.   By applying cross-pollen, the Foundation helps these chestnuts fight against the deadly fungus.

The American Chestnut Foundation workers and partners use a truck hoist to pollinate and protect pollination with protective bags on a surviving pure American chestnut in Adair County, Kentucky. Photo by TACF.

The American Chestnut Foundation workers and partners use a truck hoist to pollinate and protect pollination with protective bags on a surviving pure American chestnut in Adair County, Kentucky. Photo by TACF.

Pollinators have a tough, vital role in supporting our ecosystem. In this case, pollinating American chestnuts requires helping hands.

This is one effort the foundation is using to restore the American chestnut. The purpose of the grant program, which helps fund this effort of the foundation, is to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies.

Plus, the grant program leverages the federal investment in environmental enhancement and protection to also enhance agricultural production. Grants are available to non-federal governmental or non-governmental organizations, tribes, or individuals. Learn more about Conservation Innovation Grants.

To get started with NRCS, visit your local USDA Service Center or www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted.

Researchers pollinate and install protective white bags on potentially blight-resistant chestnut blooms at The American Chestnut Foundation orchards, Meadowview, Virginia. Photo by TACF.

Researchers pollinate and install protective white bags on potentially blight-resistant chestnut blooms at The American Chestnut Foundation orchards, Meadowview, Virginia. Photo by TACF.

4 Responses to “For American Chestnut Trees, People Help in the Art of Pollination”

  1. joel koci says:

    Hi, I’m in urban forestry extension at VSU and I’d like to help with the Chestnut project.

  2. Louise Nelson says:

    Just why can’t the bees do this work or do they spray to much poison ? We had amazing chestnut trees in Lancaster County pa. & never sprayed nor gave any help to the bees ? Are these gmo trees? …. if so why ?

  3. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Hi Joel, thanks for asking. Please contact the American Chestnut Foundation at (828) 281-0047 for more information on this project.

  4. Matt says:

    Joel,

    I’m the TACF contact in VA, give me a ring at 434-906-9312. Our main office (number listed by Ben) will give you my contact info too.

    Louise,

    The American chestnut is susceptible to a deadly pathogen, the chestnut blight. We breed hybrid trees (chinese chestnut x American chestnut) that eventually result in a 15/16ths American tree, attempting to capture much needed disease resistance from the Chinese chestnut. All done by traditional breeding (hand pollination) so not GMO’s, though there is GMO work currently being pursued by some researchers, and we are interested in that effort too. We have to bag and hand pollinate the trees because we make very specific crosses, often by two trees that are very far away from each other. Bees and other pollinators would just pollinate nearby trees, at random. Good questions!

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