July 14, 2013
American Chestnut Trees Poised For Return

Starting in 1900 a blight fungus spread through all American Chestnut forests, wiping out almost all American chestnuts by 1940. A New York Times article reports on two groups that have developed American chestnut strains that have resistance to the blight. One strain was made by crossing with a Chinese chestnut and another was made by genetic engineering.

I am especially hoping the genetically engineered strain succeeds because it has the smallest genetic difference with regular American chestnut. But likely either would be a boon.

Over 100 years ago chestnut represented about 25% of the trees in the American east. A revival of American chestnut would be a boon fora number of wild animal populations that can live off the seed crop.

Most trees produce a seed crop every three to four years through a process called masting, but the American chestnut produces a crop every year, which makes them a very important and consistent food for wildlife. The chestnut's plentiful seeds can also provide nutrition for animals. According to McCarthy, the trees were once the premiere food source of all major vertebrates in Appalachian Ohio forests. The blight, along with subsequent over hunting and the loss of habitat, caused deer, turkey and squirrel populations to plummet in Ohio forests by the 1930s.

The backcrossing method of breeding with Chinese trees is being done in a way that gets a lot of the diversity in existing American chestnuts. That makes them more resistant to other threats and gives them genetic features that adapt them to local conditions.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 July 14 08:40 PM 

destructure said at July 15, 2013 2:05 AM:

I only recall seeing one chestnut tree... ever. I don't know whether it's an American that escaped the blight or Chinese. Never seen another so have nothing to compare. But it looks very old.

When I was a kid, Dutch elm disease swept through my parents place and killed off all the elms. I'd like to bring those back, too.

jp straley said at July 15, 2013 6:46 AM:

In 1920 the chestnut comprised 25% of all forest trees in states like West Virginia (the center of its natural range). The trees flowered in May, so late frost never killed off a mast crop. The nutrient content of the nuts as far as protein, fats, & carbohydrates is very comparable to a commercial "Powerbar." Bears fattened on these nuts in the fall to get through the winter...as did many other forest animals.

The wood is about as strong as oak, and lighter on a volume basis by 25%. It was universally used in wagons so that they could get more payload!

Brett Bellmore said at July 16, 2013 3:57 PM:

Tried an early effort at this, but it croaked. I guess the blight must be very persistent in the soil. Much of the furniture in my home, inherited from my parents, is made of chestnut.

Any clue whether they're self-fertile? I wouldn't have room for two.

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