Maybe you’ve never roasted chestnuts on an open fire. And if you have, what you bought at the store wasn’t an American chestnut.
When Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song” back in 1945, the American chestnut tree was already fighting for its survival because of chestnut blight, a disease that during the early 20th century killed billions of trees and almost — but not quite — wiped out the native chestnut.
If the majestic tree someday flourishes again in the eastern United States forests as it did a century ago, there’s a good chance the Saratoga Tree Nursery will have played a role.
The 250-acre tree plantation run by the Department of Environmental Conservation is a nurturing site for American chestnut seedlings that are being used in research.
Every healthy seedling is valuable, as researchers try to develop a strain that resists the deadly blight fungus.
There are currently about 1,000 baby chestnut trees planted on the nursery grounds. Some may have blight resistance, but they all give researchers something to work with.
“The idea is we want to keep the gene pool going,” said Herbert F. Darling of Williamsville, a Buffalo suburb, who is president of the New York state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
The private nonprofit group is dedicated to someday restoring chestnut trees throughout their historic range, which stretched from Georgia to northern New England. Its national headquarters are in Bennington, Vt.
The national foundation is using traditional cross-breeding techniques to create a tree that is almost purely American, but has adapted the disease resistance of its cousins, the Chinese and Japanese chestnuts.
The American chestnut and the Asian chestnut trees are quite different in appearance, and researchers want a tree that looks like the American, but has the disease resistance of the Asian.
straight and tall
The American chestnut stands straight and tall — up to 80 feet — while its Asian cousins spread out their branches, like an apple tree.
The back-breeding technique works like this: An American tree is bred with an Asian to develop one with resistance, then that hybrid is bred with a pure American tree. The result, if still resistant, is bred again with an American tree, in a process that goes on for several generations.
“The goal is something like a 15/16th pure [American] tree,” said Darling, a retired heavy construction contractor who got interested after a mature chestnut was found on land he owned south of Buffalo.
The New York chapter is also focusing on a genetic engineering project that will introduce disease resistance genes to American trees.
Two professors at the state College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse are working on a project that implants resistant genes into American chestnut seedlings, but their work is still almost entirely in the laboratory.
While the two approaches are different, the national foundation said both can play a role in saving the tree.
Started 25 years ago, the foundation has a large research farm in Virginia, and is now on its sixth generation of cross-breeding tree. It believes success is near.
“We’re pretty optimistic,” said national foundation spokeswoman Meghan Jordan.
The foundation hopes to plant its first Virginia-grown disease-resistant seeds on national forest lands in 2009. It will then take years to determine their level of success, she said.
“Tree breeding is not for the impatient,” Jordan said.
bronx zoo blight
Chestnut blight was first noticed in trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, probably imported on a Chinese chestnut, which can carry the fungus but has some natural immunity. The disease spread by airborne spores and killed nearly all the chestnuts between 1930 and 1950.
A 25-foot-tall tree planted at the nursery a few years ago in hope it would be resistant has succumbed in the last year.
“Once it starts, it’s quick,” said Brian Phillips, principal forestry technician at the nursery.
Before that, the native chestnut was one of the primary forest trees. The chestnut was known not just for its large edible nuts, but for its quality hardwood lumber, used for construction and for furniture.
“The long-term goal is restoration to the forests the way they used to be,” Darling said.
While the national foundation has concentrated on traditional breeding methods, the New York chapter has focused on supporting the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at the state college in Syracuse — a project with its share of technical challenges.
The control seedlings for that work come from Saratoga.
“Chestnut is very difficult to grow from the petri dish,” said Dr. Charles Maynard, one of the project’s directors. “Only 10 percent of the plants get from the petri dish to young plants.” The research isn’t to the point yet of putting trees in outdoor plantations to grow, but the plan is to approach the Saratoga nursery in a few years, when they’re ready to plant, Maynard said.
He also believes success will come.
“There’s lots of things going on, from lots of different angles,” he said.
“We’re collaborating more than competing.” Both research initiatives require a supply of pure American chestnut trees, which is where the tree nursery comes in.
The New York chapter delivers seedlings to the Saratoga nursery to mature for two or three years, then the Chestnut Foundation takes them back for use elsewhere.
The tree nursery, located off Route 50 in the same area as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and Saratoga Spa State Park, was started in the early 1900s, in an era of great public concern about the general loss of trees across New York state. It produces 1.5 million or more young trees every year, softwoods and hardwoods for use by state agencies, planting in state forests, or for sale to the public.
There were once several state tree nurseries, but Saratoga is now the only one.
David Lee, manager of the Saratoga Tree Nursery, in 2004 received the President’s Award from the American Chestnut Foundation for the nursery’s assistance to research.
As research progresses, Darling said the foundation plans to approach DEC officials about developing plantations to recover the chestnut in two or three locations, including the Saratoga Tree Nursery.
“Once we know we have resistant seedlings, we’ll go on to plant larger colonies,” Darling said.
Each generation of research trees needs four to six years to mature, and a couple of more years to determine its level of blight resistance — and that applies to the genetics work being done by the New York chapter, as well as the national back-breeding effort.
“The soonest we can imagine is 10 years more,” Darling said.
Things researchers are learning while developing a resistant chestnut may aid efforts to restore other tree species devastated by disease in recent decades, such as the Dutch Elm.
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