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What it Takes to Bring Back the Near Mythical American Chestnut Trees

Posted by Jane Hodgins, Public Affairs Specialist, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service in Forestry
Mar 09, 2020
American chestnut trees
This picture, taken in the mid- to late 19th century, gives an idea of just how large and profuse the American chestnut tree was in Eastern U.S. forests. There are now only 100 or so that remain. (Courtesy photo American Chestnut Foundation)

Sometimes reaching a height of more than 100 feet tall with trunk diameters often well over 10 feet, the American chestnut was the giant of the eastern U.S. forests. There were once billions of them and their range stretched from Georgia and Alabama to Michigan, but the majestic tree was gone before forest science existed to document its role in the ecosystem.

Notes left by early foresters including Gifford Pinchot, the founder and first chief of the USDA Forest Service, suggest that its ecological role was as impressive as the tree’s size (PDF, 1.3 MB).

Mature American chestnuts have been virtually extinct for decades. The tree’s demise started with something called ink disease in the early 1800s, which steadily killed chestnut in the southern portion of its range. The final blow happened at the turn of the 20th century when a disease called chestnut blight swept through Eastern forests.

The disappearance of the chestnut launched a profound change in the structure and composition of eastern forests.

But, after decades of work breeding trees, The American Chestnut Foundation, a partner in the Forest Service’s effort to restore the tree, is close to being able to make a blight-resistant American chestnut available. However, the opportunity to restore the tree to its native range creates a question for scientists and foresters: What conditions are necessary for the American chestnut to grow and regenerate on a landscape scale?

Forest Service Research and Development scientists in the Southern Research Station and the Northern Research Station are partnering with national forests in the Southern and Eastern regions of the National Forest System to answer that question. Several studies are under way that are aimed at developing management protocols foresters can use to reintroduce the species to forests.

And hope is literally growing.

Chestnut plantings in a field
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service grant enables the American Chestnut Foundation to research ways to help the American chestnut, a vanishing species, survive. (USDA photo)

Several national forests in both regions have hosted experimental American chestnut plantings to assist in the development of reintroduction strategies. Managers on the Allegheny National Forest have demonstrated a deep commitment to chestnut restoration by explicitly including it as a goal in the forest’s Land and Resource Management Plan and establishing numerous chestnut plantations over the past 25 years.

In order to build on their goals, Allegheny National Forest managers and Northern Research Station scientists are collaborating in four new studies on the forest and surrounding forestlands to evaluate first the importance of site quality to chestnut competitive ability and blight resistance; second the impact of deer browsing on chestnut survival and growth; third the planted chestnut response to prescribed fire; and fourth the application of the three-stage shelterwood system for chestnut establishment.

The end goal of this collaboration among scientists and foresters is that the integration of their research will yield a holistic set of tools for reintroducing an iconic and long-absent tree species to the region and once again restore the lost giant of the eastern forests.

A man planting a chestnut tree
An American chestnut seedling being planted on the Wayne National Forest in Ohio. (USDA Forest Service photo by Jared M. Dort)
Category/Topic: Forestry

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Comments

Terry R. Meyerhoffer
May 02, 2019

We have room in our woods for an acre of American Chestnuts, but unable to buy seedlings anywhere for less than $100 apiece. Where can I call to get 6 or more?

Angela Hammons
May 19, 2019

I have two chestnut trees that were started from the nuts of trees that have been crossed to resist blight. They are two years old now, and I have them in pots. Hope to plant them next year.

CHRISTOPHER LEAHY
Oct 03, 2019

Take a look at the wild turkeys in New England, mostly extinct when I was a kid on the east side of the CT River now Turkeys everywhere from 1 'seed' population in the CT River Valley. Amazing and now we can do it with this tree. I would be happy to plant some in Easton, nH.

Lisetta Koe
Oct 23, 2019

I participate in conservation programs with the NRCS and other related organizations. I have done a forestry map on our 130+ acres. Are there any forestry programs for Planting American Chestnut Trees? I would consider participating. Thank you. I work with Otsego Soil and Water.

Jeffrey Briggs
Nov 03, 2019

I would like to promote the introduction of the American chestnut tree to the restoration of our local community park, Sheraden Park. It is about 11.3 acres of very hilly temperate forest; largely populated by Maples and the horrid Black Locust species. Is there any suggestions you could make to me in this regard?

Ricky Scott Meadows Sr.
Nov 12, 2019

Very sad, but truth is the blight just got em' before the unchecked commercial timber co.'s did, just as today, Right now, they are Decimating the American Hickory in the name of BBQ, flooring, and cabinetry. Also the southern Low Country Longleaf Pines and Red juniper (Cedar), Cypress and the list goes on and on. Sad, Sad, Sad, and big money politics lets it just keep going. Same as Commercial fishing boats scoop up millions of tons of fish, shellfish etc. every year and they put limits on a poor man with with a fishing rod and a tackle box standing on bank or surf..

Jude Rutkowski
Nov 28, 2019

My family has a mature American chestnut tree that my grandmothers family saved from the blight.

What should we do with it?

Brian Scott Fitzgerald
Dec 06, 2019

12/6/19

Excellent info. from a concise textual narrative complete with links of probable interest to the reader...!!! VERY good...!!! What I really want to know/ be informed of is: USDA NFS, etc. assistance available for private landowners that wish to reintroduce American Chestnut on their own property...!!! I'll check to see what info. is available if any... BSF~ Thanks VERY much...

Brian Scott Fitzgerald
PLEASE USPS mail and email me any and all info. that you may have re., reintroduction projects of blight resistant American Chestnuts on private lands Thank you. Sincerely... Brian Scott Fitzgerald~

Candy Roberts
Dec 27, 2019

So it's not an American chestnut tree ....its a gmo!

Jim Stewart
Dec 31, 2019

This is outstanding! Please expedite the research program around this tree. With all haste if is appropriate for released to the general public please make it so.

Russell Pouncey
Jan 10, 2020

Would it be possible to get a few seedlings to plant on my Lookout Mountain property in northeast Alabama?

Phil
Jan 23, 2020

I have bought 2 and will plant their my yard.hopefully they will do well. At my gun club we have a survivor but it is struggling

Barbara Kaiser
Feb 08, 2020

~ Have eighty acres here in SE Cochise County ... interested in designating a portion of that to the growing of American Chestnut trees ... any help, advice and/or assistance would be gratefully appreciated. Thank you

Tania Evans
Feb 09, 2020

I had never seen pictures of these giant chestnut trees. Kudos to those who are working to create a chestnut that can survive the blight. Imagine future (distant) generations able to walk through a forest similar to the one you show in your photograph. It is possible! Thanks for the article.

Rick Jones
Feb 16, 2020

Currently building a new home in Crozet, VA near the Blue Ridge mountains on an fairly open 3.5 acre lot. I'm interested in planting at least 4 chestnut trees. The area that I would plant them gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Would like your thoughts on whether or not the trees would do well. Thanks

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2020

@Jude Rutkowski - thank you for your comment. The American Chestnut Foundation is actively looking for American chestnuts to incorporate into their breeding program. You can submit information about and a leaf sample (during the growing season) from your tree here: www.acf.org/our-community/news/images/13126.

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2020

@Barbara Kaiser - thank you for your comment. If your state is in the natural range of American chestnut, reach out to your state chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). In some cases, they plant orchards on private lands: www.acf.org/our-community/find-a-chapter. If you’re interested in growing chestnuts for your own interest, and not necessarily in collaboration with TACF, they have a nice guide on growing chestnut: www.acf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/planting_manual.pdf (PDF, 914 KB). You can purchase pure American chestnuts from several vendors (e.g. Chief River Nursery), though they are susceptible to blight. There are no blight resistant American chestnuts available to the public yet.

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2020

@Rick Jones - thank you for your comment. Are your soils well-drained? Even more so than having decent light, getting the soils right is of upmost importance. Chestnut like well-drained, acidic soils (pH between 4.5 and 6.5). 6 hours of light should be fine. The American Chestnut Foundation has a very active chapter in Virginia. They’d be a great resource for questions about local growing conditions: www.acf.org/va. TACF has a nice manual on planting chestnuts: www.acf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/planting_manual.pdf (PDF, 914 KB).

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2020

@Russell Pouncey - thank you for your comment. At this time, the seedlings described here; the blight-resistant chestnut developed as part of the research are not available. If you’re interested in growing chestnuts for your own interest, and not necessarily in collaboration with The American Chestnut Foundation, they have a nice guide on growing chestnut: www.acf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/planting_manual.pdf (PDF, 914 KB). You can purchase pure American chestnuts from several vendors (e.g. Chief River Nursery), though they are susceptible to blight.

Doug Thompson
Mar 16, 2020

I have 15 acres in Hart county Kentucky. There is a hollow that I use to own that was named Chestnut hollow by my family. Unfortunately they are all gone . There was one tree that lasted into the 70’s that I remember , but it is gone now. So sad. I would be willing to populate this area if needed. Thanks for what you are doing.

Richard
Mar 20, 2020

As a kid in the 1970s I would scavenge chestnuts from a wild, not so healthy, but productive tree. There were a few around in the little town of Valdese NC and I always thought they were always available for everyone. I was rather shocked as an adult to learn the truth. Like many others I would love to grow a few trees and have available untouched mountain acres to do so.

Can anyone point me in the right direction without spending a huge amount of money? Any trees/seeds that I see for sale are likely to die of the same blight? What's the status on the blight free trees? Are they being held back for commercial gain?