Reviving the American chestnut

In a Gaithersburg forest, a fresh fight against blight New generation of seeds being sown in hopes of one day growing disease-resistant trees

Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006

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Susan Whitney-Wilkerson⁄The Gazette
Essie Burnworth, president of the state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, with Ron Kuipers and Barbara Knapp at the Maryland champion American chestnut on Knapp’s Germantown property.

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Susan Whitney-Wilkerson⁄The Gazette
Researchers are monitoring a canker on the Maryland champion American chestnut in Germantown.

The 100 nuts to be planted next month in the Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg will in seven or so years grow into American chestnut trees of nut-bearing age.

Every last one will catch disease and die.

The nuts they bear, however, just might help return the once-ubiquitous tree to its place atop the eastern United States’ natural and cultural landscape.

‘‘The American chestnut was the economic engine of the Appalachians, there’s no question,” said Essie Burnworth, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. ‘‘It’s huge, it’s strong, it’s beautiful and it’s easy to work with. They can live 500, 600 years and they grow several hundred feet high, so why would we not want to bring this back if we could?”

Last month, the foundation’s Maryland chapter signed a partnership with the Izaak Walton League’s Rockville chapter, where the league set aside some 15,000 square feet of its Gaithersburg land to grow the chestnuts.

Those nuts will go to research farms already taking part in a project that, through a little selective breeding and several generations of patience and persistence, is looking to breed American chestnuts that are immune to the blight that has all but wiped them out.

Before the blight came from Asia at the turn of the last century, the American chestnut so dominated land from Maine to Georgia that one in every four trees were said to be chestnuts, the abundance of their delicate white blooms making mountaintops appear capped in snow.

Within 50 years, the blight, an airborne fungus, had smothered the entirety of the chestnut’s expansive range.

The demise of the American chestnut, Burnworth explains, is ‘‘one of the biggest natural catastrophes ever in this country” — a story she puts in a cultural as well as natural landscape that is sadly fading from American memory

It is a story of railcars loaded with chestnuts chugging toward port cities, roasted, of course, and sold along city streets.

It is a story of economic prosperity, as well, of light, rot-resistant wood that grows 50 feet or more without branches, making it highly-coveted as lumber.

And it is a story a long way from writing its final, redemptive chapter.

‘‘To restore the American chestnut as we want to, we’re talking probably 150 years,” Burnworth said. ‘‘With such a long-term horizon, those of us who remember the chestnut will be long gone, so it’s critical to get young people involved in... something that is native to their environment that was robbed from them.”

The hope lay in the American chestnut’s cousin, the Chinese Chestnut, which, natural selection being what it is, is immune to the Asian blight.

The idea is to cross American chestnuts with Chinese ones, picking out the offspring that carry the blight-resistant gene. Those trees are then ‘‘back-crossed” with American chestnuts several times over — selecting out the offspring of each generation that carry the immunity — until arriving at a tree that is 15⁄16 American chestnut and fully immune to the blight’s ravages.

Scientists are a only few years away from breeding blight-proof American chestnut, says Ron Kuipers, member of both the Izaak Walton League and the American chestnut Foundation.

The role the Gaithersburg project will play is a small but critical one in the overall effort, he says: keeping alive the line of purely American chestnuts to ensure that the stock of genetic material be perpetuated for use by the farms doing the breeding.

‘‘This’ll be a pretty substantial project for us,” said Kuipers, who will tend the Gaithersburg trees. ‘‘We’re an important part of this, but the bigger story is the restoration of the American chestnut. People are starting to catch on, and there’ll be a lot more orchards soon.”