The Chestnut: Restoring an American Classic

Story by Jillian Randel

A century ago, one in four trees in the forests of Appalachia and throughout the eastern United States was an American chestnut, providing a reliable source of food and timber for humans and animals. Now it may grow once more.

Since 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has been working to restore the American chestnut to its original habitat.

Scientists working with TACF have been able to cross and then backcross the American and Chinese species to develop a tree that is fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut. Characteristics of the Chinese species make the new tree resistant to blight while retaining dominant characteristics of the American species.

In 1904, the first signs of Cryphonectri parasitica, known as chestnut blight, appeared. The blight came to America through Japanese and Chinese chestnuts that were transplanted here. It spread throughout northern forests rapidly. A second pathogen called Phytophthora had also been invading southern forests. Within fifty years, the two blights had killed four billion trees.

One of the approaches employed for chestnut tree revival is planting on reclaimed mine sites, which will restore the tree to its native region and also help reforest the mine sites—remediation and re-vegetation is a federally required law for mining companies.

“While some make the claim that it is not our true American chestnut, without doing something like this, we won’t have any adult chestnuts,” said Dr. Neufeld, biology professor at Appalachian State University. “Given how important this species was in the 19th and early 20th century, I think having a fifteen-sixteenths chestnut is better than none.”

It could take 75 to 100 years to complete reintroduction efforts and even longer to return the American chestnut to the full extent of their natural range, but success in growing other hardwood trees on reclaimed sites provides a promising outlook for a successful reintroduction program in Appalachia.

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