A New Home and New Hope For Chestnuts

A New Home and New Hope For Chestnuts

The crew prepares for planting.

It was a gray May day, and at the town forest in Fairlee, Vermont, a patchcut hummed with industrious students and volunteers.

At the base of the hill teenagers plucked trees off a car-trailer, the 5- to 8-inch rootballs wrapped in plastic. “I want you to cradle it like a baby,” said Markus Bradley, the forester who organized the event along with the Fairlee Town Forest Board, the Vermont/New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, and the Rivendell Academy.

Up on the hillside groups of students from Rivendell dug holes and nestled the trees into the raw earth.

“Cradle it like a baby,” a student repeated to a peer as they set the tree in the hole.

“This will be the only baby I’ll ever have,” replied her friend, solemnly patting the tree in that irreverent, ironic, teenage way before tamping it down into the reddish mineral soil and then topdressing it with some black topsoil and duff that her peers had collected in a 5-gallon pail.

A New Home and New Hope For Chestnuts Image

Prepping the root ball.

The forester, the students and teachers, and the volunteers were planting hybrid American chestnut trees as part of a restoration effort/botanical experiment. The trees, which were donated by the Vermont/New Hampshire Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, are officially called “Restoration 1.0 Chestnuts;” scientists call them BC3F3 crosses. They’re 15/16ths American chestnut – that stately hardwood that dominated forests in southern New England and the Appalachian states before being wiped out by an imported fungal disease in the early twentieth century – and 1/16th Chinese chestnut, a smaller forest tree often used as an orchard species that is naturally resistant to the blight. It took 35 years of selection and backcross breeding to produce the trees, which have the potential to be large, handsome trees that are also blight resistant.

A New Home and New Hope For Chestnuts Image

Rivendell science teacher Kerry Browne with students.

Yurih Bihyn, president of the Vermont/New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, said that the Fairlee site is at the extreme north end of the Chestnut’s traditional range. “We don’t know if Chestnuts grew this far north historically,” said Bihyn, but he’s intrigued by the possibility that they could become established here. “They’re a super-fast growing tree,” said Bihyn, “so they may be able to outcompete the beech.”

A New Home and New Hope For Chestnuts Image

Kenny Beaupre and Isaac Martel collect topsoil for topdressing.

Because there’s no, or very little, history of chestnut in the area, it may also mean that there’s very little blight for them to contend with. The woods in the heart of the chestnut’s range still contain lots of little chestnut stump sprouts, and the soil is still full of Cryphonectria parasitica spores that emerge from time to time to kill the stump sprouts. There shouldn’t be this reservoir of fungus in the north, which may give the Vermont trees a leg up.

A New Home and New Hope For Chestnuts Image

Students Thessalie Butler, Jenna Gilbert, Casey Ghio, Maddie Eastburn, and forester Markus Bradley plant a tree.

Bradley is optimistic that the 21 trees they got in the ground will have viable lives. While there’s no guarantee they won’t succumb to the blight, they represent a fighter’s chance, anyway, that there might be a chestnut component in our future forest.

“With all of the glum news about the global environment, the chestnut story and its re-establishment is to me the most exciting thing going on in the environmental field at the moment,” said Bradley.

  1. Bob Drieslein → in Houston, Mn
    May 27, 2016

    Where did the Chestnut seedlings come from? I’d like to try a planting on our property in SE Minnesota.

  2. William Davis
    May 27, 2016

    This is really good news. When I was a kid growing up by a creek in Van Buren County, Cummingsville, Tn., there was a big chestnut tree just up the hill from the creek, and each year, we would eat the nuts from the tree.  I suppose that was about the time the blight came through. We moved away while the tree was still alive.  I went back some years later, to see what looked like a lighting struck tree. Other than the poem about the blacksmith under the chestnut tree, that was the only chestnut tree I was ever aware of.  But I am glad they might be making a come back.  And I hope I live long enough to see some of them. Thanks to these people who are planting them up in Vermont.  May it be…

  3. janet → in Chicago
    May 28, 2016

    Encouraging news and a great way to start my weekend.

  4. John Snell → in Montpelier,VT
    May 29, 2016

    I have two in my yard in Montpelier that I bought from East Hill Nursery. They were selected from local stock in Berlin that is still doing well. The one I planted five years ago is now 20’ tall and bore a nut last year. The other, 4 years old, is coming along nicely too. Both flower profusely and the flowers are gorgeous!

  5. Chris Moore → in Stratton
    May 30, 2016

    How high an elevation could you go with a Chestnut tree?

  6. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    May 31, 2016

    Bob, the seedlings were donated by the American Chestnut Foundation. Check out their website to learn more. Chris, I don’t have an official answer—maybe someone else does—but I know that historically the tree grew naturally over on the Taconics side of the Valley of Vermont at least as high as 2,000 feet in elevation. I think red oak in southwestern VT might be something of an indicator. If it’s a good oak site, it’s probably a good chestnut site and there may have been chestnuts there historically.

  7. Richard Crafts → in Middleport NY ten miles S of Ontario Lake
    Dec 10, 2016

    The first mailed subscribed copy was wonderful. I agree with letter to keep stands of any new plants Black gum, spice bush, bitternut hickory, florida dogwood that are started by blue Jay Stork birds need to be protected and protected from nibbling rabbits and deer. They provide needed food for the new turkeys on the block(forest/field).

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