October 21, 2014

Back from the brink

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Working to save the American chestnut

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

October 10, 2013

Little more than a century ago, four billion American chestnut trees spread their massive limbs from Georgia to the Champlain Valley.

The hardwood tree grew to 100 feet tall—towering above sugar maples and pines. A crown of white flowers heralded the Fourth of July, and a shower of nutrient-rich nuts fed woodland animals and humans alike every fall.

Now, there are just a few scattered trees left—all but wiped out by a blight accidentally introduced in the early 1900s.

It’s an all-too-familiar story—humans introduce a pathogen or pest, accidently or without thinking of the consequences, and an entire species is decimated.

“There are a lot of human-induced problems that our forests are facing right now, and the introduction of chestnut blight was probably one of the first major ecological disasters in this country,” said Kendra Gurney, New England regional science coordinator with the American Chestnut Foundation.

A Williston resident is hoping to do her part to keep the American chestnut alive while scientists work desperately to bring the tree back from the brink of extinction.

Hope Yandell has planted more than 150 chestnut trees—American, European, Chinese and hybrid—over the past two years in her Williston yard, learning the best techniques and methods for growing the troubled tree.

“I have read about them and paid attention for quite a few years, and I love growing things,” said Yandell, who used to have a farm. “I had this unbearable itch to have my hands back in the ground, and it finally erupted.”

Yandell said she wants to do her part to help the species keep from falling over the edge of the evolutionary cliff—keeping the genes going while scientists work to develop a blight-resistant strain.

“It’s infectious,” she said. “There’s something incredibly exciting about being able to contribute. It’s something that was on the verge of extinction and was brought back and it’s just hanging on by a thread.”

RESTORING A FALLEN GIANT

The American chestnut is functionally extinct, Gurney said, meaning it is not able to adapt and evolve a resistance to the devastating blight on its own. But some American chestnuts still grow in the wild—60 have been reported in Vermont, though none in Williston.

Several organizations and universities have been working to restore the species to eastern forests, and Gurney said efforts have gained momentum in the past 30 years.

American Chestnut Foundation experts are working to breed in genes from Asian chestnuts—which have evolved a blight resistance—into the American chestnut. The end goal is to breed a pool of trees that are genetically as close to pure American as possible, while being blight resistant and diverse. Diversity will help the species fight off other pests or pathogens they may encounter, as well as deal with the climate disparities in their natural range along the East coast.

The strains are now undergoing rigorous testing at multiple locations along the east coast.

The Vermont and New Hampshire ACF chapter has begun forest trials, testing some of the strains it hopes will be blight-resistant. But Gurney said the road to recovery will be a long one.

“On the grand scale of things, it’s probably at least another hundred-year project,” she said.

Yandell found her American chestnut seeds after combing the Internet, finding a source of pure American chestnuts from a tree lover in Indiana. Since she loves eating the nuts, she also planted several Chinese and European chestnuts.

Yandell said she is hoping the blight doesn’t find her trees.

“I’m just holding my breath,” she said. “It’s like a wing and prayer.”

HOW TO HELP

Locals who aren’t ready to take the leap into chestnut cultivation can try their hand—or eyesight—at spotting wild chestnuts that may be lingering in the forest.

“Anyone who spends a lot of time in the woods who has a good eye (should) learn how to recognize this tree and please, please report it,” Yandell said.

Scientists are always looking for additional trees—both to mark where they are and to search for trees to add to the gene pool.

Yandell hopes to help restore some of the ecological damage humans have caused.

“Look at all the things we’ve ruined,” she said. “Maybe you could just leave behind one little thing.”

More than that, the once-mighty tree is part of our heritage, she said.

“This is part of America, part of Eastern America,” she said.

Gurney’s reasons for her work are similar.

“There are a lot of reasons why people want to make this right,” she said, mentioning that chestnuts are great timber trees and a valuable food source. “Part of it is the desire to fix things that humans kind of broke.”

Gurney said much of the work—collecting samples, planting test orchards—is done by volunteers. You don’t have to be a biologist to help bring back the American chestnut, Gurney said.

“You just have to like chestnut trees, and we’ll find a way to let you help.”

If residents think they have found an American chestnut tree, send The American Chestnut Foundation a freshly cut 4- to 6-inch twig with mature leaves attached.

For instructions on collecting and sending samples, a tree location form and more information about the effort to restore the American chestnut, visi www.acf.org.

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