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A University of Tennessee research technician measures a chestnut tree planted in 2011. Photo

Originally published: 2013-11-01 11:14:00
Last modified: 2013-11-01 11:14:46

Chestnut plantings show promise in WNC

by Staff Reports

Although the mighty chestnut is little more than a memory in the Appalachian Mountains, efforts continue as part of a vision to bring the forest giants back.

The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday published an article by intern Ryan Johnson about the project, which began in 2009. Agency researchers and partners planted nearly 1,000 potentially blight-resistant American chestnut trees in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina and in national forests in Tennessee and Virginia.

"Since then, more than 80 percent of the American chestnut backcross hybrid saplings planted in the three national forests have survived," the article stated. "Most of the trees are healthy, growing steadily and showing differing levels of resistance so far, which is encouraging for the hopeful people working to return the tree to its native range." 

Before the Chestnut blight devastated the tree population in the early 20th century, American chestnut trees dominated eastern U.S. forests, often reaching heights of 150 feet. Experts estimate that at one time, one in every four hardwood trees in the East was an American chestnut, the article said. By the 1950s, however, the blight had killed billions of trees and left the species virtually non-existent. 

The hybrid chestnut variety was created by crossing the American chestnut with a Chinese chestnut tree. The goal is to test the hybrids' resistance to Chestnut blight.

"One level of success is to develop a tree that will survive long enough to naturally pollinate and reproduce," said Bryan Burhans, president of The American Chestnut Foundation that has worked to develop the blight-resistant hybrid, in the article.

"The seedlings are 94 percent American chestnut and carry the gene for blight resistance," the article stated. "Of the American chestnut trees planted in three national forests, half were backcross hybrids and half were native chestnut trees."

Burhans said the trees' blight resistance will be put to the test as they mature in the coming years.

The trees were planted through a collaborative effort between the U.S. Forest Service, the Chestnut Foundation and the University of Tennessee.

Westcott said there are plans to expand the chestnut planting project to the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.