By Alessio Gallarotti.
(Oct. 15, 2020) — More than a century ago, 4 billion chestnut trees flourished in eastern North America. They are among the tallest, strongest, and fastest growing trees in the world. Chestnut wood is great for carpentry because it is rot-resistant and was commonly used for homes, furniture, and other wooden constructs prior to a century ago. The nuts also fed countless animal species including livestock and even humans.
Unfortunately, Cryphonectria parasitica the agent of the blight fungus (which is not native to North America) virtually killed off this entire species in about 40 years. The species had mastered many foes through its 40 million year history in the Eastern Unites States, but succumbed to blight fungus in about 40. Kill, though, maybe be inappropriate a word to describe what happened. These trees are more appropriately understood to be dormant, as the fungus does not kill the root system underground.
The trees will emerge as shrubs sometimes and be killed off by the fungus shortly after they emerge. The destruction of the chestnut population is cited as one of the worst ecological disasters, and one of the most phenomenal, in natural history. Virtually no chestnut lumber has been sold in the US for decades. Though perhaps all this will change in the coming years. There is some hope to be found among our neighbors.
Jerry Graham, who holds a Bachelors degree in Forestry from the University of Massachusetts, along with his wife, are devoting one acre of their land to the American Chestnut tree. The Graham’s have always had a “deep respect for open land” and intend to put this land to use. After speaking with the Connecticut branch of the American Chestnut Foundation it was determined their land was suitable for the tree’s healthy growth. They met with the representatives of the foundation in Hartford after hearing about them working with other nature groups in the state. The Graham’s invited them to their home and one thing led to another.
What they are going to create is called a Germplasm Conservation Orchard (GCO) which essentially uses live tissue and ultimately the DNA of a species to create new organisms, in this case, new trees. Jerry and his wife planted 30 chestnuts this past spring, and this will be followed by another 30 nuts next year, and finally 30-40 nuts the year after that. This will yield a total of 100 trees. The trees will be able to cross pollinate because of the design of the setup and help them grow better.
In any event, it will be an incredible effort on their part; perhaps just this effort will be enough to return at least a small piece of the once great population of American Chestnuts to our forests. It is unlikely, given the perceived history, anyone currently living has been able to witness them in their natural habitat.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Graham.