Published: Saturday, December 04, 2010, 6:30 AM
The first chestnuts from specially bred, blight-resistant American Chestnut trees should be ready for distribution and planting next year, a landmark in the 27-year effort to revive the huge trees that once dominated Eastern forests before an invading disease all but exterminated them.
"After 27 years of breeding efforts, we are now taking those baby steps out into the woods," said Mac Phillippi, president of the Alabama Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation.
The chapter is holding its annual meeting today in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens' Linn-Henley Lecture Hall from 10 a.m. to noon. The public is welcome to attend.
The nuts, harvested from trees at the national orchard in Meadowview, Va., will be distributed for planting in 2011 to state chapters of TACF and will be limited in number.
Phillippi said experts estimate 40,000 will be available nationally. Phillippi cautioned that the newly developed trees are only "potentially blight resistant."
"But optimism is high for those seeds," he said.
The state chapter plans to plant the first crop of nuts at demonstration sites where the public can learn more about the chestnut's story.
The American Chestnut was once the dominant hardwood tree in Eastern forests along the Appalachian mountains. They were fast growing, lived up to 600 years and grew more than 100 feet high and 10 feet in diameter. In the late spring, their white blossoms covered the mountainsides, and in the fall their nuts provided food for both wildlife and humans. As a source of timber, the trees were prized for their strong, light, rot-resistant wood.
But around the turn of the 20th century a blight was imported with Chinese chestnut trees. Asian and European species of the trees were resistant to the blight, but the American tree had no immunity.
In just 50 years, an estimated 4 billion trees died from Canada to Alabama. Wildlife populations that depended on the nuts for food also plummeted.
American Chestnuts survive in a few remnant populations, and the sprouts still grow from the roots of vanished "gray ghosts" of the forest.
In the 1980s, a breeding program began that married American Chestnuts with their Chinese cousins. In each succeeding generation, trees that retained the blight resistance of the Chinese trees were crossbred with the American Chestnuts. Over time, the national effort has produced a tree that is fifteen-sixteenths American: a tree with the characteristics of the larger American tree with a genetic sliver of the disease-resistant Chinese variety.
Chestnut enthusiasts have to walk a fine line. They want people to know about the potential, but also to be aware that the public won't be able to get seeds immediately.
"As people learn more and more about this, we have to guard against frustration," Phillippi said. "We can only move as fast as these trees can grow."
But in the longer term, they'll need ever-growing help. Several state chapters have orchards, including Alabama's orchard at Muscle Shoals, where the blight-resistant trees are growing. In coming years the number of nuts available will begin to grow exponentially.
In planning for that, the state chapter is hoping to build a network of organizations and landowners interested in being part of the replanting effort. Organizations like the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the Boy Scouts, Forever Wild, the Freshwater Land Trust, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Russell Lands, the Alabama Forestry Commission and others have taken interest in the effort.
"What we are focused on right now is building organizations," Phillippi said. "Otherwise, in the future, we may find ourselves with more seeds than we have people to plant."
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