Many people know the story of the American chestnut tree, but sadly many more people don't. It is one part tragedy, one part farce, ten parts dedication and hopefully, ultimately, 100 parts triumph.
Chestnut blight is a fungal disease that was accidentally introduced to the USA from Asia in about 1900. Several species of Asian chestnuts had co-evolved with the blight fungus, and were resistant. The American chestnut - a towering, majestic tree that dominated the forests of Appalachia and much of the eastern USA - had virtually no inherent resistance. Within 50 years more than 3 billion American chestnut trees were dead. (We'll never know the degree to which the American chestnut population might have had some innate resistance to chestnut blight; as the disease ripped through the eastern hardwood forest landowners were instructed by foresters to cut down all of their chestnut trees, on the assumption that they were all doomed, to salvage the lumber value. The fact that a small number of American chestnut trees did survive the blight, and the fact that in large populations a certain number of individuals almost always survive even the worst epidemics, leads us to believe that there would have been thousands of survivors that could have formed the basis of a breeding program to restore a pure American chestnut to the woods. Such an effort is underway thanks to an incredibly dedicated group of folks, but still we wonder what might have been if those chestnuts had been left standing to determine which could withstand the blight.)
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded by, among others, four brilliant men with - I'm proud to say - Minnesota connections: Charles Burnham, Philip Rutter, David French and Donald Willeke. The plight of the American chestnut was thought by most to be hopeless. These men had other ideas, and under Burnham's guidance initiated a bold and far-reaching plan: Adapt the precepts of the traditional "back cross" breeding done in other fields of agriculture to the American chestnut.
In other words, cross-breed the American chestnut with blight resistance Asian chestnuts, and then continue to back-cross the most blight resistant of these offspring with American chestnuts. The goal, of course, is to produce trees that gain the disease resistance genes of the Asian chestnuts, while maintaining and exhibiting the physical characteristics of the might American chestnut.
That process is several generations down the road, and the results are incredibly exciting and promising. I stand in bewildered awe of the dedication of the American Chestnut Foundation and its head plant breeder/farm manager Fred Hebbard.
At the same time there are other ways to restore the American chestnut. The aforementioned American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation, whose goal is to breed a blight-resistant tree that is 100% American chestnut in its genetics by working with the few chestnuts that survived the onslaught, the dedicated folks who are working with hypovirulent strains of the fungus in hopes of stopping the blight in its tracks as happened in Europe, and the amazing people who are applying genetic engineering to create chestnut trees capable of fighting off the fungus.
I salute you all.
And here at Wilson Forestry Supply we hope, at least in our own small way, to help in any way we can. Our Tubex Combitube Tree Tube is ideally suited for use on American chestnut seedlings or direct seeded chestnuts. Large diameter vented tree tubes have proven to be the best choice for American chestnuts.
If you are planting American chestnut trees this spring, give us a call. We offer special discount pricing to all of the dedicated folks working to restore the American chestnut to its rightful place in our eastern forests.