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Research is helping to restore American chestnut

The chestnut once was one king.

And because of efforts of those such as Montreat College biology professor Brian Joyce, it may be again.

Until the mid-20th Century chestnuts towered over 200 million acres in the east. The tree, which grew up to 150 feet, provided food for people and animals, building material, and a source of hard-to-come-by cash for mountain residents.

The blight that devastated chestnuts left a gaping biological hole. But blight-resistant breeding programs now being carried out in places such as Montreat’s Black Mountain Campus could produce mature groves in as little as 30 years, experts say.

“Because it was such a significant part of the eastern forest at one time, I believe we need to do everything we can to restore that species back to our forest,” Joyce said.

This year, local chestnut revival efforts will be highlighted as the American Chestnut Foundation holds its annual summit in Asheville.

Along with the summit, Joyce plans to lead what could be a ground-breaking chestnut leaf decomposition study. He will also continue working to get local chestnut genes into the blight-resistant pool.

That’s important, chestnut foundation spokesman Paul Franklin said, because even a blight-resistant tree could die if it’s not adapted to local conditions, something built up over thousands of years of evolution.

“We know from just experience with trees of all types, if you want to grow a tree in North Carolina, having a tree bred in North Carolina is your best bet,” Franklin said.

Chestnuts once made up 25 percent of the woods from Maine to Florida. They were particularly prolific in the Valley and other parts of Western North Carolina where their concentration reached 40 percent.

Their sweet-tasting nuts served as food for wild game and livestock as well as people.

The wood was light, strong, and fast-growing and also supplied raw material for leather tanning and paper making.

That ended with the blight’s arrival. The fungus which caused it piggy-backed on the shorter, bushier Chinese chestnut imported for its nuts and ornamental aspects.

In an interesting turnabout, the tree that brought the American chestnut’s near-doom, has also turned out to be its savior. Through generations of cross-breeding with Chinese trees and American chestnuts, growers now have a tree with 94 percent American characteristics as well as the Chinese blight-resistance.

That breeding program to increase blight resistance has continued in orchards around the east, such as Black Mountain, Franklin said.

And with a survival rate of 1-3 percent, the program has taken a lot of trees, the chestnut foundation spokesman said.

“We have about 125,000 of the trees in orchards,” he said.

On the lower Montreat campus each tree is purposefully infected with the blight to see which can survive. Trees with bushier Chinese characteristics are also weaned out, Joyce said.

“We started with 60 trees,” the biology professor said. “Now we have 26. We’ll probably keep two.”

In another part of the campus, a group of chestnuts are growing from nuts collected in the Valley. They were produced by wild trees that had not yet grown big enough to be killed by the blight. It’s those young trees that can be bred into the blight-resistant group to supply local characteristics, such as adaptations to cold and altitude.

Western Connecticut State University professor Stephen Wagener did a study on chestnut leaf decomposition.

Wagener showed that chestnut leaves decomposed faster, but didn’t conclude why, though he supposed it might be a high nitrogen level. Now Joyce is leading a class to investigate if nitrogen is the key.

These type of interactions the chestnut had with other plants is important, Joyce said, because it can help ecologists and others understand what the forest was like and what it could be like again.

Asheville Citizen-Times

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