What happened to the American chestnut? "The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then disappeared within 40."

Courtesy photo Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Services via Wikimedia CommonsThis branch of an American chestnut tree shows the distinctive orange speckles of Cryphonectria parasitica, an Asian bark fungus first spotted in 1904 by the head gardener of the Bronx Zoo and later identified by mycologist William Murrill. The invasive decimated the American chestnuts throughout the eastern North American forests.

OAK HILL — For over a century, scientists, ecologists and ordinary citizens have been grappling with the near total destruction of a species of tree that comprised a quarter of the Appalachian forests and of eastern North American forests from southern Ontario to Florida.

Uncountable efforts by innumerable individuals and groups have been undertaken to create a blight-resistant American chestnut tree.

The American Chestnut Foundation is one of the groups intent on restoring the once-proud species.

“The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) is committed to restoring the American chestnut tree to our eastern woodlands to benefit our environment, our wildlife, and our society,” TACF states on its website at www.acf.org. “Unlike other environmental organizations, TACF’s mission is not about preventing environmental loss or preserving what we already have. The concept of our mission is much bolder and more powerful. It’s about restoration of an entire ecosystem and making our world a much better place than we found it.

“Forest restoration is a specialized form of reforestation, but it differs from conventional tree plantations in that its primary goals are biodiversity recovery and environmental protection. This makes restoration of the American chestnut a long-term commitment. It is, quite simply, an investment in the future. The specialized work we do also provides opportunities to assist with other endangered species. Our ultimate goal is to create a template for the restoration of other tree and plant species throughout the world.”

It was once claimed that a squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia totally via the canopies of the mighty American chestnut without ever touching the ground.

That was before the introduction of Cryphonectria parasitica, an Asian tree bark fungus, which was imported into the country in the early years of the last century on Chinese chestnut trees. According to a 2018 story by Josh Swartz of WBUR, a National Public Radio station in Boston, the fungus first was discovered by the chief gardener at the Bronx Zoo in 1904.

“The chief gardener for the Bronx Zoo was making his rounds and noticed that a couple of the trees had some orange speckles and signs that the branches were dying,” Swartz wrote. “He couldn’t figure out what to do, so he called in a guy named William Murrill who had been recently appointed as the chief mycologist, or mushroom expert, at the botanical gardens across the way.

“Murrill studied the orange stuff on the trees, and a few years later published his findings under the title ‘A New Chestnut Disease.’ He concluded that this thing, what was eventually known as the Chestnut Blight, is going to wipe out all the chestnut trees in the region. The problem? No one believed him. In fact, as the blight starts to do exactly what Murrill says it’s going to do, the government gets all the big tree minds and some clueless politicians together in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where someone actually accuses Murrill of not doing enough to stop the blight. To which he responded, according to Freinkel, ‘I was on this thing way before you were, and if you think you can do something here you’re out of your mind!’”

Murrill’s prediction proved all too true.

The loss of the chestnut trees devastated the eastern forests and affected both animals and humans by removing a diet staple.

According to the American Chestnut Foundation, “The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) once dominated the eastern half of the U.S. Because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes, the tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes. The wood was used wherever strength and rot-resistance was needed.

“In colonial America, chestnut was a preferred species for log cabins, especially the bottom rot-prone foundation logs. Later posts, poles, flooring, and railroad ties were all made from chestnut lumber.

“The edible nut was also a significant contributor to the rural economy. Hogs and cattle were often fattened for market by allowing them to forage in chestnut-dominated forests. Chestnut ripening coincided with the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season, and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree.”

Although the American chestnut was not totally destroyed, the “trees” which grow from the stumps of the former giants of the forests are themselves affected by the blight.

“This disease reduced the American chestnut from its position as the dominant tree species in the eastern forest ecosystem to little more than an early-succession-stage shrub,” the ACF writes on its website. “There has been essentially no chestnut lumber sold in the U.S. for decades, and the bulk of the annual 20-million-pound nut crop now comes from introduced chestnut species or imported nuts.

“Despite its decimation as a lumber and nut-crop species, the American chestnut has not gone extinct. It is considered functionally extinct by the USDA because the blight fungus does not kill the tree’s root system underground. The American chestnut has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites, but inevitably succumb to the blight and die back to the ground.”

To that end, efforts continue across many fronts by many groups, through both natural cross-pollinating and genetic modification, to revive the species.

The ACF sponsors events such as the Oak Hill planting in hopes that the trees will return to their former glory.

“More than a century ago, nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees were growing in the eastern U.S. They were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees. The wood was rot-resistant, straight-grained, and suitable for furniture, fencing, and building. The nuts fed billions of wildlife, people and their livestock. It was almost a perfect tree, that is, until a blight fungus killed it more than a century ago. The chestnut blight has been called the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history.

“The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then disappeared within 40,” an article reads on the ACF website.

Keith Richardson, chapter coordinator for the New River Gorge Master Gardeners which hosted the ACF last month in planting American chestnut seedlings at property at the Oak Hill school complex, said the struggle is real and ongoing and vital to the ecosystem.

As a young man, he said, “I knew about the chestnut and the blight and that wormy chestnut was good for building and you can’t find it anymore, but I wasn’t interested in the naturalist part of it.

“Later, hearing the old folks talk about the giant chestnut trees that used to be all over the area and when you see an old stump from a tree that was 9 feet across… That’s kind of somber.

“And now it’s happening all over again with different species.”

He pointed out the attacks on the area’s elms and hemlocks by the emerald ash borer and the hemlock woolly adelgid, respectively.

“Hopefully the work of the American Chestnut Foundation in studying how to handle the chestnut blight and come up with a solution that will create blight-resistant trees, how to handle it, will help us with other species. If nothing else, the whole saga of the American chestnut is teaching us, guiding us, to learn how to battle the attacks on other trees and hopefully to prevent them.

“We need to be aware of the ecosystems and how they work together for sustainability and we need to stop importing (things that can carry diseases),” he said.

To learn more about attempts to revive the American chestnut, visit the ACF website at www.acf.org.

For more on the New River Gorge Master Naturalists, visit www.newrivergorgemasternaturalist.org or the group’s Facebook page.

Email ckeenan@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @Fayette_Cheryl

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