Maryland orchard on quest to restore American chestnut with aid of Chinese cousin

  • Jacquelyn Slade, 7, of Hampstead, helps Gary Carver plant a blight-resistant Chinese chestnut sapling as part of decadeslong program to create a crossbred, resilient American chestnut.
Jacquelyn Slade, 7, of Hampstead, helps Gary Carver plant a… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
November 29, 2009|By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com

In a Carroll County field, the plot to restore the long-deposed King of the Forest to its arboreal throne is afoot.

Royalty in this case is the American chestnut, and the host for this attempted restoration is the State Highway Administration, which has set aside a 2-acre plot by the newly opened Route 30 Hampstead bypass to plant an orchard of the same spreading tree that sheltered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's village smithy.

Assisting in the effort is a retired physicist-turned-woodcarver named Gary Carver, an Ijamsville man who doubles as president of the Maryland chapter of the American Chestnut Federation - a group dedicated to reviving a once-proud species that was devastated by a fungal blight during the first half of the 20th century.

"It's a magnificent tree," Carver said as he stood last week at the spot where a group of chestnut lovers had gathered to plant seedlings of the first of an estimated 300 trees that will ultimately take root on the parcel. "The story of the American chestnut tree is very engaging and very charismatic."

And, like most good stories, it has elements of tragedy.

From the time before English colonization until the dawn of the 20th century, the American chestnut was one of the most magnificent and beneficial trees in Eastern North America. Capable of reaching immense height and thickness, it provided not only food in the form of its nuts but tannin for treating leather and a hardwood prized by furniture-makers and carvers for its straightness and strength.

Then, in 1904, chestnuts in New York City were found to be infected by a deadly form of Asian fungus to which the native trees had little resistance. By midcentury, the resulting blight wiped out some 4 billion trees - more than 99 percent of the chestnuts in the Eastern United States, Carver said.

In recent years, the nonprofit chestnut foundation has embarked on an effort to revive the American species through a program of cross-breeding with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees. To do so, it has formed partnerships across the country to create experimental breeding orchards to raise trees with the appearance of American chestnuts but the resistance of its Asian cousin.

It was such an orchard that came to the attention of William L. Branch, an environmental analyst with the highway administration's Office of Environmental Design, during a weekend trip through Codorus State Park in Pennsylvania.

"They were in fruit. They had nuts on them. They were about 25 feet tall, and it struck me that if orchards such as this could be done in partnerships, then we should do what we could as environmental stewards to assist in this effort," Branch said.

The state environmentalist happened to be involved in a highway project that already had a tricky environmental challenge: to preserve the habitat of the threatened bog turtle that lay in or near the route of the Hampstead bypass. It's a project that has forced highway officials to grasp for unorthodox solutions to a number of problems, including the use of goats to clear vegetation in place of mechanical mowers that might have killed or injured the turtles.

Branch said his agency got in touch with the chestnut foundation and began talks about a collaboration to plant trees on a parcel alongside the bypass. Among other things, Branch said, the trees could help create a buffer protecting turtle habitat.

"There's an extremely valuable bog turtle site down the bottom through the woods," Branch said, pointing across the field where the chestnut orchard is to be planted.

The Maryland chapter of the foundation jumped at the chance to plant one of the state's first chestnut restoration sites - another is planned at Fort Detrick - at the Carroll County site.

Carver said the blight is spread when fungus penetrates the inner bark of a susceptible chestnut - either through airborne spores or animals that rub against the tree. American trees invariably die as a result, he said, while Chinese chestnuts sicken but survive.

When the blight struck during the last century, Carver said, it happened so quickly that evolution could not keep up with the sudden change in the environment. Thus, there was little chance for the American chestnut to develop resistance.

That, he said, is where the foundation's work comes in. "We're trying to jump-start evolution."

To do so, the foundation will plant both Chinese and domestic chestnuts and begin a gradual process of cross-breeding - propagating the trees that show the best combination of American characteristics and Asian fungus resistance. The group plans to plant 75 to 80 trees next spring - starting with the nuts themselves - and a like number the following year.

After several generations spanning decades, Carver said, the foundation hopes to grow trees that are genetically 94 percent American but resistant to blight.

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