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    October 2012
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American chestnut is back, say Western NC scientists

From the Asheville Citizen-Times

Today, they are practically extinct, these giant living things that once called the mountains of Western North Carolina home. But, thanks to a grand experiment that sounds almost like something out of a real-life version of “Jurassic Park,” a mighty species once thought to have vanished from the world is making a comeback.

Before hikers and leaf-lookers start worrying that packs of ravenous raptors soon will be roaming the ridgetops, this experiment has nothing to do with dinosaur DNA or prehistoric-themed parks gone horribly awry. To borrow a phrase from the Steven Spielberg cinematic classic, there will be no “running and screaming.” That is, unless folks go running to the hills and start shouting from the mountaintops: The American chestnut is back.

The species of tree, thought to have been wiped out by disease a century ago, is the subject of an ongoing effort by scientists interesting in bringing back a tree that once blanketed the hillsides of the Eastern woodlands. Working with the American Chestnut Foundation, an organization headquartered in Asheville and established in 1983 with a mission of restoring the tree to the Appalachian mountain landscape, researchers are laboring to develop a blight-resistant form of the chestnut.

The Cataloochee Backcross Orchard near Maggie Valley is among the many plots where the foundation is working. Here, scientists such as Paul Sisco are planting seeds, crossbreeding American chestnuts with their Chinese counterparts and conducting tests to determine the plants’ resistance to blight and disease.

“These are my babies. I’ve watered them, pulled weeds. It’s the acid test when you imagine getting the best trees from this orchard, and getting the seeds that will grow blight-resistant trees,” says Sisco, who purposely inserts plugs of blight-laden fungus into trees and monitors them for growth of additional fungus. He calls it one of the last steps before producing a truly blight-resistant tree, as survivors from different families of American chestnut will be intercrossed toward the goal of stronger seeds that will be planted in the spring of 2014 and, he believes, produce stronger trees.

It is a worthy undertaking. Until the first decade of the 20th century, the American chestnut was king of the eastern forests, from Maine to Georgia and west through the Ohio River Valley. Growing up to 100 feet tall, the American chestnut accounted for as much as 40 percent of Southern Appalachian forests, says Paul Franklin, communications director for the American Chestnut Foundation. The trees were an important source of food for woodland animals and a vital part of the South’s economy because of their role in the lumber industry and home building, Franklin says.

Chestnut wood was revered for its qualities, easily worked, durable and laden with tannins. Its uses ranged from fence posts to furniture, and many a mountaineer was laid to rest in coffins crafted from chestnut wood.

But a form of blight from Asia was discovered in chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo in 1904, spreading rapidly through native trees that were unable to fight off the foreign fungus. The blight reached WNC by the 1920s and decimated the forests. Some 4 billion American chestnuts had been wiped out by 1950.

A handful of hardy trees survived, however, including a few found some 20 years ago by family members of Judy Sutton, third-generation owner of the Cataloochee Ranch. Two of those trees are still alive, says Sutton, whose mother contacted Sisco and offered a plot of the sprawling ranch for an orchard to aid in the chestnut studies; the test orchard was planted in 2007. “In two years, hopefully we’ll be planting a permanent orchard with the help of the Chestnut Foundation to keep the process going and keep American chestnuts in our forests,” says Sutton.

Other places in WNC also are involved in the efforts to restore the American chestnut. Potentially blight-resistant trees are planted on private land in the Weaverville area, in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest and the Nantahala National Forest. Two trees were planted last fall in the N.C. Arboretum; sadly, only one is still alive this fall.

Folks such as Sutton, Sisco and Franklin are optimistic that one day all of the crossbreeding and testing, this planting and pruning, this nurturing and inoculating will bear fruit. In this case, make that nuts — as in the American chestnut, the former “mighty giant” of the Southern Appalachian forestlands that is back from the brink.

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