Deep roots

For some mountain folk, it was a gift of god … a bounty so generous that people were stirred to awe — almost reverence.

— Richard C. Davids, The Man Who Moved a Mountain

For some early settlers of the Blue Ridge region, nature’s bounty included both the apples and the “tumbling streams” they exploited to concoct their daily “usin’ liquor.” But the “gift” that Davids refers to is the remarkable contribution of a single species — the American chestnut.

Davids’ book, written in the 1950s, chronicles the life and times of renowned regional minister Bob Childress, who lived in the heart of the Appalachians from the late 1800s until 1956. To help evoke the world that Childress grew up in, the author devotes a whole chapter to spelling out the invaluable role the American chestnut played in the lives of both the region’s indigenous people and the white settlers who arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, however, this beneficial species has virtually disappeared from its native landscape — the victim of one of the worst environmental catastrophes ever documented in the Western Hemisphere.

Throughout its historic range (from southern Maine and Ontario to northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi), the former “queen of the Eastern forests” was an integral part of the heritage of eastern North America. The Cherokee legend of U`tlun’ta, the Spear-finger makes reference to the seasonal ritual of gathering the nutritious nut. According to the story, the female monster would stalk the Cherokee when they went out in the fall to burn the leaves from the forest floor to reveal the chestnuts on the ground. And a member of Hernando de Soto’s 16th-century expedition through the region, commenting on the tree’s abundance, wrote, “Where there be mountains, there be chestnuts.”

In the 20th century, those words rang hollow, as Castanea dentata fell prey to the ravages of blight. Now, however, thanks to the concerted efforts of modern-day foresters, geneticists, researchers and volunteers, the American chestnut appears poised to reclaim its rightful place in our forests.

Keystone species

The Southern Appalachians were the heart of the chestnut’s historic range. “Imagine a continuous stand of magnificent trees that towered nearly 100 feet and averaged up to 5 feet in diameter,” exclaims Phil Pritchard, director of development and special projects for the Carolinas chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation. Regional Science Coordinator Paul Sisco chimes in: “Some specimens were measured to be 8 to 10 feet in diameter. … And one of every four hardwoods in the mountain forest was the American chestnut.”

During our interview, Sisco gives a delightful informal presentation, showing photos of families standing in front of huge, ancient-looking trees. The story of the chestnut, he says, contains many chapters. “Some of them are historical and culturally based, while others are economic.” And the newest chapter, notes Sisco, features “science and genetics.”

To help convey the tree’s extraordinary usefulness to early settlers, Sisco quotes a paragraph from Davids’ book: “The chestnut tree fed them, fattened their stock, warmed their fireplaces, cooked their corn bread, bought their luxuries. … The more children you had, the more chestnuts you could gather.”

The October mast was also a bumper crop for both wildlife and domestic animals. “The American chestnut,” notes Sisco, “was the mainstay in the diets of wildlife that inhabited our forests, including bear, turkey, squirrels and deer.” He adds with a chuckle, “Old-timers could let their hogs range free during the fall without worrying about them running off.”

In the spring, the nectar from the chestnut’s blossoms yielded what modern mountain folks maintain was one of the best honey crops ever seen in the region.

And then there was the timber. No other species, Sisco explains, could compare with the chestnut’s straight-grained, branch-free wood. “It was lighter in weight than oak, more rot-resistant than redwood, and ideal for use in just about everything from hand-split shakes, fine furniture and instruments to fences, railroad ties and telegraph poles,” said Sisco (see “Restoring an Appalachian tradition”).

The chestnut’s wood and bark were also important for leather production. The former Champion Paper plant in Canton, says Sisco, provided tannic acid for tanneries in England and Germany.

From devastation to restoration

At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees are believed to have sheltered the eastern U.S. But in one of the worst natural disasters in the history of forest biology, an accidentally introduced microscopic villain, Endothia parasitica, initiated a wind-borne fungus attack that progressed at a rate of nearly 25 miles a year. The lethal fungus, commonly known as the chestnut blight, swept southward and westward from New York into the immense forests of the Southern Appalachians. By 1950, all that remained in the wake of destruction were a few “ghost trees” standing alone in isolated coves. Longtime Asheville resident Joe King recalls seeing these lonely “monuments” while rambling the forests of Montreat in the 1930s. In ecological terms, the chestnut rapidly surrendered to the devastating waves of the wind-borne blight. Human-wrought ecological destruction is well documented, but 70 years later, the chestnut blight still stands as one of the few plant diseases to have single-handedly dismantled an entire species.

Efforts to fight the blight proved ineffective. In the ’20s, tree surgery, chemical spraying and buffer cuts of large tracts of forest all failed to halt the deadly invader. In the ’50s, various Asian species were field-tested, but none could match the American chestnut’s mast production, form and rapid growth. Blighted trees continue to produce new sprouts, but sooner or later, the persistent fungus infects these saplings, too.

The sad tale might well have ended there, with the wounded stumps of fallen giants vainly putting out desperate new shoots. Happily, however, the collective efforts of Pritchard, Sisco, the Chestnut Foundation and thousands of other dedicated scientists and volunteers are writing an encouraging epilogue to the American chestnut story. The key to defeating the debilitating chestnut blight, it seems, may lie in the esoteric wizardry of genetics.

In the Mother Tree Project, Chestnut Foundation workers, says Pritchard, “identify and inventory 100-percent American chestnut trees in the region. Then, in the spring, workers collect the pollen from these mother trees.” The idea, stresses Sisco, “is to conserve as much of the genetic diversity as possible from our Appalachian forests.”

In another component of the program, the foundation — working in breeding nurseries throughout the eastern U.S. — crossbreeds American chestnuts with their blight-resistant Asian cousin, Castanea mollissima (see chart). The resulting offspring (F1) is then backcrossed with a pure American chestnut to produce BC1. After three series of backcrossing, the offspring (BC3) is intercrossed with another BC3 specimen. A second intercross breeding sequence (BC3F2) produces the final result (BC3F3), which Pritchard predicts will be “94 percent American chestnut.” With each cross, concludes Sisco, “more and more American chestnut characteristics are regained and ultimately, the final product [will have] blight-resistant qualities equivalent to that of the original Chinese parent.”

This painstaking process cultivates patience as well as trees. Each generation, says Sisco, takes at least six years. The first BC2 tree was planted in 1990, using two BC1 trees salvaged from old USDA and Connecticut Department of Agriculture experiments to jump-start the crossbreeding program (saving two generations — or 12 years of work).

At long last, however, the goal is in sight. Meadowview Research Farms in southwest Virginia — the heart of the tree’s native range — now has thousands of these potentially blight-resistant seedlings growing in their nurseries. In a few more years, once resistance and other desirable characteristics have been confirmed, these trees will be planted in larger forest test plots.

In a matter of decades, the chestnut blight — aided by the humans who unwittingly brought it to New York — undid what it had taken nature thousands of years to realize. Now, however, we may be on brink of witnessing the restoration of this majestic tree.

As Pritchard puts it: “The American chestnut has been around for several millennia. … We owe something to ourselves and the species that has survived here so long.”

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