The American chestnut returns to AS IF Center

If you were to walk among the forests of the eastern United States over a hundred years ago, you would likely be walking in the shade of Castanea dentata,  the American chestnut. It’s estimated that there were about 3-4 billion of these majestic trees in the east, possibly making up a quarter of the trees in the Appalachians.

Original range of the American chestnut

The trees could grow to a massive size and provided food for wildlife, domesticated animals,  and people. The wood was incredibly rot-resistant — historic cabins with chestnut siding still stand in our mountains today, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The chestnut seemed indestructible, until the first half of the twentieth century when chestnut blight arrived on imported Asian chestnut trees, wiping out entire forests all across the east within a period of about 40 years.

American Chestnut trees destroyed by chestnut blight, Chattahoochee National Forest, north Georgia, 1930. Photo courtesy of ChattOconeeNF.

Yet a few of the trees persist. Miraculously, the roots of some of the trees have stayed alive, producing shoots that leaf out and grow for about a decade, then when the sapling reaches reproductive age, it gets the blight and dies back, only to leaf out again a few years later. One of the most optimistic sights in the southern Apps is encountering one of these everlasting chestnut saplings on a summer hike.  You reach out to touch them, and you’re touching a sacred remnant of our past.

But you might also be touching the future. Is it possible we could restore our American chestnut forests one day? For over 90 years, there have been efforts to restore this beloved tree species, often using the genetic material of those brave saplings that persist in our woods. In 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) was founded to continue restoration efforts, and has been using a backcross method with Chinese chestnut species to develop blight-resistant American chestnut trees. They have developed genetic lines that are fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut, with one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut for blight resistance.

To support the TACF research and restoration effort, and as a gift to High Cove community and to Carol Jacobsen & Marc Poland whose land and facilities make our art-science center possible, AS IF purchased chestnut trees to be planted in our community this spring.

The seeds arrived in late winter and sat dormant in the fridge for a few weeks, little treasures packed in moist sphagnum moss, sealed in plastic bags. As the spring weather approached, several community members gathered at the Yellow House to select planting sites that would be optimal for chestnut — dry ridges with loamy, well-drained soils. Lucky for us, a geologist happened to be in our midst (thank you, Kaye Savage!) who got out her soil maps and advised us about site selection.

At the Yellow House, selecting optimal sites for our chestnut babies. L to R: Olga Ronay, Carol Jacobsen, Richard Martin, Kaye Savage

We had a late spring this year. It snowed, it stayed cold, it rained cold rains, then snowed some more. And then it snowed. And again. When spring finally came, it lasted about a week — then suddenly it seemed summer would be upon us. So we waited and waited for the right moment, then a week later, we were in a hurry — time to plant! One hot late spring/ early summer day, Olga and I geared up to plant our seeds. To keep voles and other small mammals away, we cut the top and bottom out of a beer can and created a metal sleeve for the seeds, burying them about halfway into the ground. To protect for deer, we made cages of goat fencing. Such a lot of hardware for one little seed!

Olga adjusts the deer-proof fencing around our chestnut seed.

We also planted a couple of seeds in pots that we will be tending throughout the year — when they are strong, we will plant the saplings next to their sister trees. Wish our little seeds good luck!

Good luck, little seed!

Addendum: Read this article from the Washington Post about biotechnology and the American chestnut, also featuring an image of a giant chestnut tree from our county in 1914!

American chestnut tree in Mitchell County (where AS IF Center is located) from 1914.