Saving the Kings of the American Forest
October 13, 2005 8:31 AM   Subscribe

After nearly being wiped out by a fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica), that was first identified in 1904, the American chestnut is attempting to make a comeback with a little help from its fungus-resistent Chinese cousin ... and maybe you. [more inside]
posted by terrapin (18 comments total)
Tree researchers, and groups like The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), are hoping hikers, hunters, land owners and camping enthusiasts will stumble upon American chestnut trees. These researchers are already working to breed surviving American chestnuts with the Chinese-American hybrids that are resistant to the the disease. According to the ACF the Chinese characteristics are being bred out with each successive generation. Only the blight-resistance genetic component in the American chestnuts are being left. Finding mature, flowering American chestnuts that escaped the blight is key to the research.

People from around the country are helping. Even the very busy Jimmy Carter is lending a hand. Personally, I learned about this tragedy in Barbara Kingsolver's novel Prodigal Summer, which includes the plight of the tree in the plot.
posted by terrapin at 8:31 AM on October 13, 2005

Wow, this is cool. My father has a remote cabin in Indiana that sits on 20 acres surrounded by the Hoosier National Forest. On that land he has a natural long stemmed grass prairie and he and I saw one of the handful of remaining wild bears in Indiana. He also has a large stand of wild, unblighted American Chestnuts!

I will definitely be sending him these links!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:47 AM on October 13, 2005

We just got a little piece of real estate in Florida with two, giant chestnut trees. I must harvest a leaf sample and send it in.
posted by wsg at 8:52 AM on October 13, 2005

I expect that after all this work the bird will soon be wiped out by a horrible yeast infection.
posted by maxsparber at 9:01 AM on October 13, 2005

*begins preparing open fire*
posted by jonmc at 9:13 AM on October 13, 2005

Don't make me register the username Jack Frost, jonmc.

*dons eskimo clothing*
posted by terrapin at 9:31 AM on October 13, 2005

This is cool.


I'm confused by that statement. Also, is there any reason that it will not grow outside its native habitat? I'd like to see it growing in Nebraska and see we don't have a Chapter yet.
posted by spock at 9:45 AM on October 13, 2005

I had to cut down two giant but sickly chestnut trees in my yard last summer. It would be wonderful to replace them with one of these hybrids, instead of a wretched Bradford pear or the like. Thanks Terrapin!
posted by LarryC at 9:46 AM on October 13, 2005

American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation has been trying to identify trees in America that are naturally resistant as well.

I'd love to plant one or two of these on my land in an attempt to bring the chestnut back. Growing up in the 1970s', there were still some chestnut trees in Worcester MA's Institute Park, I remember gathering nuts with an uncle that has now passed on. Unless it was one of the cousins of the tree (like the asian ones). We didn't eat them, just drilled holes in them and stuck them on a string.
posted by inthe80s at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2005

I was under the impression that the American chestnut was extinct. I'm really happy to be wrong and to see this effort underway.
posted by cali at 10:54 AM on October 13, 2005

I've looked through this stuff before, but have not in a while, so thanks for the reminder. In Appalachia the chestnut blight is still remembered as a huge turning point when forests previously productive and supportive became significantly less so. There some good oral history about the role of chestnuts in rural Appalachian culture in the Foxfire books.
posted by OmieWise at 10:58 AM on October 13, 2005

Here's a pdf of a short (8 pages) paper on The Historical Significance of the Am. Chestnut to Appalachian Culture and Ecology.
posted by OmieWise at 11:38 AM on October 13, 2005

Ooh, and here's an article by Susan Freinkel, one of this year's Alicia Patterson Foundation Award Winners (previously linked in the blue), called A Whole World Gone about the loss of the Chestnut.
posted by OmieWise at 11:42 AM on October 13, 2005

Thanks for the extra info, OmieWise.
posted by terrapin at 11:46 AM on October 13, 2005

Excellent post, terrrapin. I really love this topic, but haven't looked around the internet about it for quite a while. The Freinkel article I linked to above does a great job of describing the central role the trees played in Appalachia.

The owner of one of the last remaining country stores in Patrick County, Coy Lee Yeatts, vividly remembers the last time he tasted an American chestnut: from a squirrel's stash he and his little sister dug up "the seventh of June nineteen hundred and twenty-eight." The date is etched in his memory because his sister died the next day.
posted by OmieWise at 12:41 PM on October 13, 2005

The date is etched in his memory because his sister died the next day.

Just a thought here, but maybe the lesson here is not to eat something you "dig out of a squirrel's stash."
posted by Pollomacho at 1:52 PM on October 13, 2005

A similar effort may yet save the American Elm. My fair Midwestern burg was once so graced with streetside elms, which grow straight and then arch out such that the street has the appearance of a gothic cathedral, that it was called "Bower City". The elms in front of my parents' house died a few years after we moved in, and the replacements do not have the same shape. Every time I prune I feel the loss.

And now the Ash is threatened by the Emerald Ash Borer.
posted by dhartung at 12:29 AM on October 14, 2005

dhartung, you'd better stop pruning that elm or you're going to feel the loss again!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:16 AM on October 14, 2005

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