Until the 1930s, America’s eastern forests were dominated by the American chestnuts (Castanea dentata). One in four trees was a chestnut – there were millions of chestnut trees covering the landscape. The majestic hardwood trees reached up to 100 feet tall and were favored by Native Americans and early settlers for their fine timber and edible nuts. The nuts were also essential to wildlife.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Chestnut blight, a deadly fungal disease introduced to the United States from Asia in the early 1900s, destroyed our chestnut forests and threatened the very existence of these important trees.
Since then, tree breeders and researchers have worked to find blight-resistant varieties to bring American chestnuts back to our landscapes and forests. And, after years of research and millions of dollars of investment, it looks like they may be succeeding!
American Chestnut Restoration
Organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) are on the forefront of research dedicated to restoring these important North American trees to our forests. Over 25 years ago they created the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project, an effort spearheaded by researchers at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In that time, lots of hopeful discoveries have been made.
Many blight-resistant American chestnut varieties have been found — TACF calls them “Restoration Chestnuts”. Some were collected in the wild, others bred with blight resistant Chinese chestnuts, and still others genetically engineered with blight-resistant genes.
All of these varieties have brought us closer to having truly disease resistant American chestnuts, but researchers have taken the effort one step further. They realized a more intensive, collaborative effort was needed to repopulate our forests with these ecologically vital trees.
Ten Thousand Chestnut Challenge
In 2014, TACF launched a crowd-funded campaign called the “Ten Thousand Chestnut Challenge”. The challenge was to plant 10,000 chestnuts in eastern research orchards where resistant American chestnuts could be bred for disease resistance and diversity.
If successful, they will select disease-resistant chestnuts able to grow in many regions across eastern North America for forest repopulation.
Donors gave $101,911 to support the campaign, and over the last three years thousands of trees have been planted to meet the 10,000 chestnut goal.
Chestnut Blight Restoration Progress
So, what progress have they made?
The American Chestnut Foundation has helped plant over 1.8 million blight-resistant Restoration Chestnut seedlings in eight states since 2009. These have been planted in both forests as well as public and home landscapes. Highly blight-resistant American chestnut varieties from the Ten Thousand Chestnut Challenge also show great promise and are being planted and monitored.
American Chestnuts for Homeowners
So what does this mean for you, the homeowner?
These beautiful blight-resistant chestnut trees are great for wooded yards and edible landscapes, but everyday landscape nurseries don’t sell them, yet. The best way to get your own blight-resistant Restoration Chestnut is to join The American Chestnut Foundation. Members are sometimes offered these trees for home planting, and you can become part of the restoration process!