The American Chestnut tree has been extinct in the Appalachain mountains for seven decades. Thanks to science, ETSU will be receiving two of the trees next Friday.
The American Chestnut tree went extinct in the Appalachian mountains by the 1940s. The reason the tree went extinct is because of a fungus, called the chestnut blight, that was introduced in New York and traveled down through Appalachia.
After years of work, the trees are making a comeback.
“The trees were given to various sites in the Southeast on a limited basis,” said Tim McDowell, director of the ETSU Arboretum and faculty member in the department of biological sciences. “We may be at the leading edge of an important recovery of a keystone tree.”
ETSU was orginally supposed to receive the trees Friday, but the ceremony was postponed until next Friday because of rain.
ETSU received the trees because of Richard Rollins, a former high school science teacher who is pursuing his doctorate at ETSU. Rollins was teaching at University High when he assisted a student with an Eagle Scout project. The project involved planting 25 chestnut trees in the university’s woods.
Rollins has been associated with the American Chestnut foundation for a number of years. When ETSU hired a new president, he thought it would be the perfect time to plant some chestnuts on the campus.
“I was looking for an opportunity to try expand the chestnuts within the campus,” Rollins said. “I found that offering the gift to Dr. Noland, since he was the new president, might avail him to become partners with the foundation and be more willing to support research and trees on campus.”
Rollins wrote a letter to Noland about the trees, and received a positive response from him. The trees will be donated in Noland’s honor.
The American Chestnut was the dominant tree species in Appalachian forests from New York down through the southern states. Because the tree was the dominant tree, the chestnuts provided food for people and animals. The tree also provided timber for building because the wood is resistant to decay.
The combination of the chestnut blight and years of chopping down the trees sent the tree into extinction.
“Around the 1930s, the trees were what we ecologically consider to be reproductively extinct,” Rollins said. “There are still chestnut trees on Buffalo mountain, but they have to be about seven years old before they are reproductive. Before they can reach that age, they get hit by the blight and get knocked down.”
Around 26 years ago, scientists began trying to bring the American Chestnut back. The first thing scientists did was to take an American Chestnut and a Chinese Chestnut and cross breed the trees so the end result was a tree that was half American and half Chinese.
“The two trees don’t have a lot of the same characteristics,” McDowell said. “The goal was to take the resistance from the Chinese species and give it to the American species.”
Once the trees had grown for about three years, scientists would look for the most American looking trees and bore holes in them. They would then place the blight into the tree to find which trees were more resistant to the blight.
They would then repeat the process with the hybrid trees until the trees were 15/16ths of the original American Chestnut, and blight resistant, Rollins said. The trees ETSU will be receiving are the third generation of the 15/16th trees.
The chestnut foundation then began distributing trees on a limited basis. McDowell is happy he will be adding the trees to the university’s collection.
“We have over 300 species growing in the Arboretum,” he said. “We want good specimens for native trees. The chestnuts represent an important native species in our collection.”
Rollins doesn’t plan on stopping trying to get more chestnuts in the area. He already has some spots picked out to plant 25 or 30 more trees for research purposes.
He plans on trying to plant more across from the 25 original trees he helped plant with the Eagle Scouts.
McDowell is impressed with the effort of trying to bring the trees back to their native region.
“This represents one of the major conservation efforts of our time,” he said.