Bringing Back the Chestnut Tree

Bringing Back the Chestnut Tree

By Mike Mullet, Ball Ground Resident

American chestnut trees were once a dominant native. Its nuts fed wildlife, provided a cash crop, figured prominently in tales of the first Thanksgiving, and became a feature in a favorite Christmas carol, roasting on an open fire. By some estimates the American chestnut once accounted for up to a quarter of the trees in American forests, but today it has largely vanished, decimated by blight and root rot. Help is on the way. A couple small orchards on a hillside in western Cherokee County are part of a national effort to restore the American chestnut to the eastern U.S. forest ecosystem.

“It was about 2005 that I found the tree,” Dr. Austin Flint says. “I saw a chestnut on the ground and looked up. I saw the leaves; they’re pretty distinctive, and then I saw the blight on the trunk. It wasn’t a very big tree, but I was almost certain I had found a wild American chestnut.” He describes the first in a series of events that in 2017 culminated in the planting of two experimental American chestnut orchards on land he owns in Waleska, where he discovered the tree. He has become a leading local advocate for chestnut restoration.

American chestnut trees were once a dominant native. Its nuts fed wildlife, provided a cash crop, figured prominently in tales of the first Thanksgiving, and became a feature in a favorite Christmas carol, roasting on an open fire. By some estimates the American chestnut once accounted for up to a quarter of the trees in American forests, but today it has largely vanished, decimated by blight and root rot. Help is on the way. A couple small orchards on a hillside in western Cherokee County are part of a national effort to restore the American chestnut to the eastern U.S. forest ecosystem.

“It was about 2005 that I found the tree,” Dr. Austin Flint says. “I saw a chestnut on the ground and looked up. I saw the leaves; they’re pretty distinctive, and then I saw the blight on the trunk. It wasn’t a very big tree, but I was almost certain I had found a wild American chestnut.” He describes the first in a series of events that in 2017 culminated in the planting of two experimental American chestnut orchards on land he owns in Waleska, where he discovered the tree. He has become a leading local advocate for chestnut restoration.

“There happened to be a meeting about the American chestnut that very day at Reinhardt University,” Austin recounts, “so I drove over and showed the chestnut to a man named Dr. Martin Cipollini, a biology professor visiting from Berry College. He came right out to the land and confirmed the tree was in fact a wild American chestnut. We were both thrilled.”

Not that long ago, finding an American chestnut in the wild was neither novel nor a cause for excitement. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, a little more than a century ago the trees numbered more than four billion, with a range that extended across the eastern half of North America, from Florida to Ontario.

The trees were an excellent source of food for wild animals, Native Americans, early settlers, and their livestock, and the tree’s rot-resistant, straight-grained wood was in high demand for furniture and building.

“My father was born in 1888, and I came late in his life, so I remember him telling me about chestnut trees,” recalls Austin, a Georgia native who moved to Cherokee County with his wife and three young sons in 1968. “He told me the trees would get huge, more than six feet across, and they were everywhere.”

Around 1900, however, to meet demand for chestnuts among a growing American population, Chinese chestnut trees began to be imported to the U.S. Those trees brought with them the fungus responsible for blight, essentially wiping out the American chestnut population in about forty years.

Even as Asian chestnut species introduced blight to the U.S., however, some of the imported trees were themselves resistant to it. Efforts today to restore American chestnuts, therefore, focus on crossbreeding the American chestnut with the Chinese variety to introduce genes that protect against blight, which is exactly the science being used on Austin’s land in Waleska. It’s a collaborative effort that includes Dr. Martin Cipollini from Berry College, the Georgia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, and faculty and students at Reinhardt University, where Austin is also a trustee.

“My contribution to this project is that I let them use my land,” Austin says of the acreage just north of Reinhardt University that he bought in 2001. “I don’t get paid for it, but I am proud to be a part of the effort to restore what is part of our American heritage. That’s what the American chestnut tree is.”

A (mostly) retired radiologist who at one time led a large radiology practice that served numerous hospitals in north Georgia, Austin at age eighty-three finds the restoration initiative both intriguing and heartwarming. He also enjoys being able to work with some of the foremost experts in chestnut restoration.

Dr. John French, a retired plant pathologist who is a volunteer consultant for field studies undertaken by the American Chestnut Foundation’s Georgia chapter, is one of the experts involved in the restoration project. He explains how the work is being done in Waleska and in similar field studies all over the eastern U.S. “A lot of people think of a laboratory as being indoors and filled with test tubes and beakers,” John says, “but these orchards are laboratories. Our objective is to develop a population of American chestnuts that are resistant to both blight and root rot, so we can restore this tree to American forests, and these trees are the experiment.”

Reinhardt University associate biology professor Dr. Zach Felix, his colleague Keith Ray, and a handful of student interns have planted and maintained about one thousand chestnut hybrid saplings on Austin’s land over the past three years. The workers have braved winter cold and summer heat. They fought insects and killed weeds that would jeopardize the experimental plants.

“The Reinhardt folks who tend these important orchards are, most importantly, gaining hands-on experience in the sciences that underpin the entire forest ecosystem,” John explains. “They will take what they learn here and use it to build greater understanding of how all living things fit together. We’re not just growing trees; we’re growing people.”

In the experimental orchard for studying blight, the planted saplings are 94 percent American chestnut and 6 percent Chinese chestnut. Some develop blight and die, but others continue to grow. Some have been intentionally inoculated with blight—a small hole drilled in their trunks and the fungus inserted—something that will eventually be done to all of them. The trees that don’t develop blight, even when infected with it, likely contain the genes that make the trees resistant.

The other orchard laboratory is for studying root rot. Even though the root-rot organism, called Phytophthora, occurs naturally in the soil, all the trees are intentionally inoculated multiple times so they cannot escape becoming exposed to it. Eventually the trees resistant to blight will be crossbred with those resistant to root rot, in hopes of creating a population of American chestnut that can be reintroduced into the wild to grow and propagate naturally.

Even as the goal of the project is clear and the science of crossbreeding trees resistant to blight with those resistant to root rot logical and simple to explain, restoring a tree species takes time—likely decades, in the case of the American chestnut.

“I know this effort is going to take years. It may not come to fruition until long after I am gone,” says Austin wistfully, “but when this great tree is restored and its beauty is a part of our American forests once more, I will be honored to have played a part in it.”

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