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Restoring Our Native American Chestnut

By on December 28, 2014

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” was once a common phrase, long before it was a song.

That was back when American chestnut trees dominated forests from New England to the South and as far west as the Ohio Valley. Each fall the trees’ sweet nuts blanketed forest floors, providing a bountiful harvest for foragers of all stripes. Rot-resistant chestnut wood was prized for building materials.

But the beginning of the end for our majestic American chestnut came in the late 1800s, when nurseries imported Asian chestnut trees carrying a microscopic fungus. American chestnuts had no resistance to the fungus. The resulting chestnut blight, first discovered in 1904 in New York City, quickly spread.

By the time “The Christmas Song” was written in 1944, billions of native chestnut trees had succumbed and most of the great chestnut forests that had thrived for sixty thousand years were gone.

Today, although the American chestnut is not technically extinct, few trees grow old enough to flower and reproduce. Any “chestnuts roasting on open fires” today probably did not come from our native trees.

But there’s hope for a chestnut comeback – and, ironically, it comes from the very trees that originally carried the blight. The American Chestnut Foundation has been working since the 1980s to breed a hybrid chestnut combining the natural characteristics of American chestnuts with the blight resistance of Asian varieties.

The Chestnut Foundation does most of its research in western Virginia, where 10,000 hybrid trees are growing. These trees represent the sixth generation of cross-breeding, and are genetically about 15/16ths American chestnut and 1/16th Chinese chestnut.

The Chestnut Foundation has other experimental plots up and down the coast, including several in New Jersey.

According to Sara Fitzsimmons, regional science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation, one of the more successful plots in the Garden State is a fenced grove of 150 trees on Schooley’s Mountain, near Long Valley. “They’re doing very well. We have some trees that are five to six inches in diameter at breast height, and we’re getting nuts from them.”

In Somerset County’s Lord Stirling Park in Basking Ridge, volunteers last spring planted 350 nuts from a hybrid known as “Restoration 1.0.” As of the end of October, 90 percent of the seedlings had survived.

And in Bergen County, the Tenafly Nature Center has worked with the Chestnut Foundation to set up an educational demonstration plot with a variety of chestnut hybrids.

Other New Jersey experiments haven’t turned out as well. A chestnut grove in Mendham suffered from heavy deer damage, and two plots on New Jersey Conservation property in Hunterdon County have lost most of their trees. But even failures contribute to the body of research about what works and what doesn’t.

“Tree breeding is not for the impatient,” notes Fitzsimmons. “We make slow progress and every once in a while we have an ‘aha’ moment.”

The Chestnut Foundation plans to cull its sixth-generation hybrids down to “the best of the best,” said Fitzsimmons, and eventually plant their seeds throughout the American chestnut’s former range.

With luck and science, someday our forests may again be filled with majestic chestnut trees – and chestnuts roasting on an open fire will come from hybrids descended from a sorely missed American native.

To learn more about the American chestnut restoration project, visit the American Chestnut Foundation website at www.atf.org.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

The State We’re In…
by Michele S. Byers
Executive Director
New Jersey Conservation Foundation