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DALY: Once a great tree, American chestnut has nearly vanished due to blight

A few months ago I was visiting the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, where I observed several large chestnut trees growing near the main building. These are Chinese chestnuts, which are common to our area. Their presence reminded me of a closely related tree, the American chestnut, which used to cover the landscape throughout the eastern United States.

When the early European colonists came to America, they observed forests that were full of these magnificent trees. They grew to a large size, often more than 100 feet in height and up to 50 feet in diameter. They produced white flowers in the spring, which gave the landscape the appearance of being covered with snow. The trees were estimated to have composed 25 percent of the eastern forests and covered more than 200 million acres. Sadly, these wonderful trees were nearly wiped out by a deadly fungal blight in the first half of the 20th century.

The American chestnut was an important component of the ecosystem of forests throughout the eastern United States. It produced food for many types of wildlife and provided them with shelter. Its lumber was lightweight, resistant to rot and was frequently used for the construction of homes, railroad ties, and for furniture. The bark was used for tanning leather.

The deadly fungus was introduced in the early 1900s. The fungal spores began to spread to the American chestnut through the air, rainfall, animals, and insects. It enters the tree though the bark and attacks the underlying tissue. The flow of nutrients and water in the tree's internal vascular tissue is disrupted, and the tree succumbs. By 1930, most of the American chestnut trees were destroyed. Occasionally new sprouts arise from the old stumps; however, the fungus usually kills them before they reach 20 feet in height. Rarely, larger trees have been found in isolated areas that have by luck avoided contact with the disease.

In recent years, attempts have been made to restore the tree. The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 by a group of scientists who realized how the demise of the American chestnut tree disrupted the local economy of rural communities as well as ecology of forests within the tree's native range. They have begun crossing the American chestnuts with the Chinese chestnut, which has resistance to the disease. Their goal is to develop a hybrid of the American chestnut that has all of its attributes combined with the disease resistance of the Chinese chestnut. The hybrids have shown promising results of resistance. However, none of them is available for sale to the public as of yet.

With the disease-resistant hybrids of the American chestnut being developed, perhaps by the end of this century, the forests of the eastern United States will once again have large populations of these wonderful trees. For more information the American chestnut and the conservation efforts to save it, visit the website of the American Chestnut Foundation at www.acf.org.

Winter is a good time to decide on what to plant in your yard. The Gwinnett County Extension Plant Sale has some excellent plants that are available for sale this winter. If you are interested in purchasing some of these excellent plants, go online to the Extension website at www.gwinnettextension.com, click on events to download the brochure and order form or call the Gwinnett County Extension office for a form to be mailed to you.

The deadline for ordering is March 12. The order pick-up day will be March 21 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, 2405 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville.

Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.