Photo by Lisa Marini Finerty
The American chestnut, the most majestic and prized tree of the eastern U.S., was brought to the brink of extinction by a fungus accidentally imported from China around 1900. Cites and whole states tried to halt the blight by cutting gaps in the forest or removing all local trees. In vain. By 1940 the eastern trees were gone. Some trees lived on west of the Mississippi River, maybe because the beetle that transports the fungus could not cross the water.
The American chestnut is coming back. There’s a breeding program that crosses the American and Chinese chestnuts, grows the seedlings, selects those that look most like the American (straight-growing, toothy leaves) and resist the blight. After two decades, when the seedlings first flower, they are crossed with American chestnuts. The program has reached the fifth generation of hybrids. Today, there are varieties that are 95% American and resist the blight. Woo-hoo! Plant them. Now. Here’s one source.
The nuts are small, sweet and nutritious, the trees are giants. In some groves, they stood with their toes almost touching and their first branches fifty feet up a straight trunk. The nuts fell in huge quantities, feeding flocks of turkeys and people. The dream endures that someday our forests will hold American chestnuts again.
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