New Hope for Chestnuts

While scientists and foresters struggle to find a way to save the hemlock tree, research is still ongoing to restore another iconic member of the forest family. Although in the case of the American chestnut, resurrect may be a more appropriate word. It has been almost 75 years since the tree disappeared.

Once again, as in the case of the woolly adelgid decimating the hemlock, a non-indigenous invasive species was the culprit. It turns out the killer of the American chestnut was a fungus, believed to have been brought to New York in Japanese nursery plants around the turn of the 20th century. It only took about 40 years for the fungus to wipe out the trees in the Eastern U.S. Fortunately, researchers saved some specimens and they are working to cross-breed the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut, which appears to be resistant to the fungus.

The key word there is “appears,” because scientists are still testing their sample trees in the lab. Likely, it will be decades before a tree that scientists are confidant can survive is actually planted in a national forest. Hopes were high a few years ago that a discovery had been made, but it turns out the crossbred chestnut trees were not as resistant as once thought.

American chestnutYou might think it is silly to try and bring back the American chestnut, until you consider how serious a blow the loss of the trees proved to be for various regions of the country, including western North Carolina.

Remember the verse in the holiday classic White Christmas, “chestnuts roasting on the open fire”? The nutritious nuts from the trees provided food for humans and animals. The lumber from the trees provided a powerful economic boost to the region, building furniture, homes, and buildings. Chestnut lumber was lightweight, durable, and rot-resistant — the perfect building material.

Finally, the loss of the chestnut also dealt a huge ecological blow to the forest that scientists are still trying to understand.

In short, everything in the world is interconnected and the loss of a species hurts us all, in ways big and small. 

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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