This year marks the 30th anniversary of the American Chestnut Foundation — a group of chestnut enthusiasts and academics who’ve been stalwartly trying to revive the species since it’s decline in early 20th century. It might surprise young’uns like me to hear that chestnuts once comprised a quarter of eastern forests, which if you think about it is a whole lotta trees. That all changed when a fungus commonly called chestnut blight hopped aboard nursery exports from Asia, and spread across the entire chestnut range within 40 years.
At the end of last summer, I visited TACF’s research farm in Meadowview, a wide part of the road in southwestern Virginia. It was part of a feature article that I wrote for Nature on how TACF and other chestnut restoration efforts are starting to see results. The main goal at Meadowview is to breed an American tree with the right selection of genes from Chinese chestnut to provide resistance to the blight. (Unlike their American counterparts, Chinese chestnuts can survive the blight.) It took them a little under 25 years to do this, but they’ve started to export their chestnut breeding pipeline to local TACF chapters across the US. I took some pictures while I was there:
The other side of the Chestnut revival story begins with researchers at SUNY in upstate New York, who have developed genetically modified American chestnuts — American chestnut trees with candidate resistance genes from other chestnut species or other plants. Last March, a test plot of gm chestnuts was planted at the New York Botanical Garden — right across the street from where the blight was first discovered at the Bronx Zoo. In August, I went up to NYC to visit a friend, and of course, I dragged her on a side trip to NYBG to see their baby chestnuts.
It might seem bleak from an outsider’s perspective, but perhaps one day chestnuts — maybe even genetically modified chestnuts — will comprise eastern forests once again. For more background, here’s my piece. And, if you’re super curious people have written books about this saga (American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree does a great job portraying the colorful cast of characters involved, and then apparently Barbara Kingsolver based a character on TACF’s chief scientist in her novel Prodigal Summer.)
Image Credits: HMT.