Resurrecting The American Chestnut Tree

May 16, 2014

American Chestnut trees used make up twenty-five percent of the Appalachian forest.  A blight, in the early 1900s changed that, and today they’re all but gone from the forests from Georgia to Maine. 

But the tree left us a way to resurrect it from the dead, and with it, a kind of message:  Only with the help of human beings will the towering Chestnuts return. 

"I was raised here in the valley and when I started hunting, about 1960 or so there were still these old gray giant trunks standing in the woods," says Carl Absher a semi-retired forester from the Catawba Valley.  

Those American Chestnut Trees he saw all those years ago had already died, but still stood; a testament to their durability. Around the turn of the last century they were attacked by a fungus that arrived here from China.  It killed the trees, but it didn’t wipe out every last trace of them.

It’s also one of the most resistant wood. One of the uses is all the split rail national fences you see in all the national parks, some of those rails have been out there since the park was made.”

And the American Chestnut has another kind of resistance, if not to the blight itself, it has a way to outsmart it, but only if humans intervene. Absher explains that even though the blight kills the tree above ground, its root remains alive underground and a new tree grows from it.

“What we have here are nuts that came from some of those survivors that managed to live long enough and produce flowers and produce nuts again.  The thing is most of them die before they get to be knee high.”

At first this tree nursery at the Catawba Sustainability Center looks like rows of foot high plastic or metal tubes.  Hybrid seedlings from native and Chinese chestnut trees were planted about a month ago along with a control group.

"The seedlings, see that one there Oh yeah, sticking up above?  Fresh new leaves, isn’t that pretty.  That reddish color they will be. And they will be 6 or 8 inches long and bright deep green when they mature.”

In the next round the keepers will be crossbred again, with that Chinese Chestnut, which is resistant to the Asian blight.

"It will be these trees grandchildren that will head back to the forest."

While It was an Asian Blight that took out the American Chestnut, a tree that is its Chinese cousin that is key to its return.

“China and the south eastern US are awful similar in soil climate and vegetation. That’s one of China’s problems too, is invasive plants.   The global economy goes both ways.”

Human intervention, in the form of travel brought the fungus here, but the young American chestnut tree sprouts, fated to die from it, could never recover without  well…more human intervention. It’s a painstaking process to gather the pollen and nuts from the young American Chestnut tree sprouts for cross breeding.  And to keep these young seedlings safe from predators.

“Everything that walks crawls or flies in the woods, if it doesn’t eat the nuts it eats the trees and most things eat both.”

Chestnuts were also important to people.

"It was one of the big export crops for Appalachia. They were shipped out by the trainload around the turn of the century yeah, that’s the nuts that were roasted on an open fire.”

But before we might again expect that kind of bounty, there will be a lot more work from people like Absher and countless other volunteers.  This project takes science and sweat, and a little something else.

"I came up and gave them a little pep talk before I came down to meet you, I said GROW you know we’ve been waiting hundreds of years you gotta put your little leaves out and gather the sunshine and go for it.”

Carl Absher has to leave this seedling nursery now to get to his part time job driving the school bus.  Another version of helping the next generation.  But he’ll be back here soon. "Hopefully the grandchildren will appreciate it. That’s the goal.  I’ll never see the big chestnut trees, hopefully they will.”