In contrast to its peaceful and stunning high-mountain setting, Maggie Valley’s Cataloochee Ranch has been at the forefront of a battle — a battle to restore the American chestnut, the iconic Appalachian tree devastated by blight in the mid-20th century. In 2007, working in partnership with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), Cataloochee Ranch became the host site of a test orchard of potentially blight-resistant American Chestnut trees, and starting this week, they will open this orchard to the public for tours.
A local group has raised more than $10,000 to support local, state and national efforts to bring back that mighty giant, the American chestnut tree.
The Cataloochee Branch of The American Chestnut Foundation sponsored its first annual Chestnut Saturday and fundraising dinner in September. More than 500 people joined in the festivities which were held at Cataloochee Ranch, which boasts an outstanding chestnut breeding orchard.
Chestnut Saturday was scheduled just prior to the Branch’s fundraising dinner. The day-long event featured crafts and vendors, live bluegrass and dancing, chestnut orchard tours, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, horseshoes, kids’ games and wildlife biologist Rob Gudger’s captive wolves. The Branch’s dinner featured entertainment and a live auction and the event was almost sold-out.
“Cataloochee Ranch is ideal for growing chestnuts,” said TACF board member Dr. Paul Sisco. “The high-elevation site is good because chestnuts are susceptible to another introduced pathogen, Phytopthora, which causes root rot; however, Phytopthora can’t survive freezing.”
Now in its fourth growing season, Cataloochee’s orchard will be tested in a couple of years for resistance to the blight, and the survivors will be backcrossed again. The trees growing there will be ready for introduction to the wild in 2015, Sisco reports.
“Despite two inches of rain that day [of the event], we were extremely pleased with the turnout,” says Judy Coker, owner of Cataloochee Ranch. “We’ve already started planning next year’s event which will be held the first Saturday after Labor Day. We were very fortunate to have partnered with the Haywood County Council of Garden Clubs and we worked with three outstanding groups, Mountain View Garden Club, Richland Garden Club and the Waynesville Council of Garden Clubs.”
Linda Boyd, President of the Waynesville Council of Garden Clubs said that while Council members were meeting at Cataloochee Ranch to plan a program, they learned about the ranch’s involvement with TACF. The Council decided quickly to help promote the rebirth of the American chestnut tree by participating in the Chestnut Day and gala fundraisers.
For information about the return of the American chestnut, visit www.acf.org. To join the Cataloochee Restoration Branch of The American Chestnut Foundation call 828.926.1401.
By Julie Ball • Correspondent
As a boy, Gene Gibson remembers his parents heading to some of Western North Carolina’s high mountain ridges in search of chestnuts.
By that time — the early 1930s — most of the trees at the lower elevations were dead, killed by a devastating chestnut blight that all but wiped out the species.
“Most of the chestnut trees down here had already died, but there were still some in the higher ridges that were still producing,” said Gibson, who lives in Jackson County.
For southern Appalachian families, the American chestnut was an important part of life. Not only did it produce food for livestock and timber for homes, but the chestnuts from these massive trees could be used to barter or to sell.
Now a modern-day effort to bring back the tree is taking an important step forward. The U.S. Forest Service, American Chestnut Foundation and officials from the University of Tennessee recently announced the planting of 500 blight-resistant trees on U.S. Forest Service land in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The planting took place last winter, and the trees have thrived over the past year, according to forestry officials.
“Today really is a historic event,” said Bryan Burhans, president of The American Chestnut Foundation, which has been working for more than 25 years to develop a blight-resistant tree.
The foundation has been breeding the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut with the American chestnut, resulting in a mix that is genetically 94 percent American chestnut and 6 percent Chinese chestnut. The cross will hopefully provide just enough DNA from the Chinese chestnut to stave off the blight, yet still boasts the signature characteristics of the American chestnut, such as the prized nuts and high quality wood.
Roger Williams, director of forest management for the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region, called the test planting another step toward re-introducing this “keystone species” to its native range decades after it was wiped out.
The chestnut seedlings planted last year have grown an average of 10 inches already.
Stacy Clark, research forester for the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station, described them as “healthy” and “free from blight,” but it will take several more years to determine if they are blight resistant.
Clark said the blight normally doesn’t show up until the trees are five to 10 years old.
“We are hopeful the test plantings conducted last winter will be successful,” said Barbara Crane, regional geneticist for the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region.
The 500 blight-resistant trees were among a total of 1,200 trees planted at three locations on national forest land.
The other 700 trees included pure American chestnut trees, pure Chinese chestnut trees and various generations of trees that are a mixture of the two species. The seedlings grew for a year in a nursery before they were planted as part of this effort.
“These first test plantings are true scientific experiments,” Clark said.
Officials will monitor the growth and determine whether they can survive and what kind of management might be needed.
“Also, it’s important to determine how these trees will grow in a real-world setting,” Clark said.
The Forest Service and University of Tennessee planted the trees on Forest Service land under a memorandum of understanding with The American Chestnut Foundation. The agencies are not saying exactly where the trees are planted to protect them from possible theft.
“The trees we planted are approximately 4- to 6-feet tall. They came from nuts that were collected over two years ago,” Clark said.
Plans call for another 500 blight-resistant trees to be planted in 2010 on national forest land. The American Chestnut Foundation is also working to develop a plan for future restoration of the trees. The American Chestnut Foundation recevied a $1 million contribution last year from the Stanback family, known as champions of conservation in Western North Carolina for their large contributions to preserve tracts of land.
The loss of the American chestnut tree was a “disaster,” according to Gibson, who lives in Jackson County.
Chestnuts made up 25 percent of the hardwood forests in the eastern U.S. The massive trees grew alongside oaks, but they produced more mast and also produced food more consistently. Burhans said a mature oak would produce 1,000 acorns on average — but a mature American chestnut tree produced 6,000 chestnuts on average.
The chestnuts were an important source of food in the forest, but they also provided a crop that could be sold by people living in the southern Appalachian region.
Gene Gibson’s son, Bill Gibson, who serves as executive director of the Southwestern Commission, said his grandmother was born in Haywood County and later lived in Jackson County. She told stories of heading to high mountain coves during the fall to collect chestnuts.
The family would bring along buckets, washtubs, and any other containers they could find. They’d also bring along livestock to fatten them up on the chestnuts.
“They (the family) would go back there, and they’d stay a long time, maybe a week or more,” Bill Gibson said.
The family would roast the chestnuts on site, then haul them home to use during the winter.
Timber from the American chestnut was also used heavily in the mountains. And Western North Carolina is full of stories about the size of the trees. In some cases, it took several people holding hands to reach around the massive trunks.
The trees contributed to the overall health of the ecosystem and were a valuable source of food for wildlife, according to Williams. But in the first half of the 20th century, the trees began dying, hit by a fungus that would become known as the chestnut blight. By the early 1950s, the American chestnut had virtually disappeared, even at the high elevations.
Sprouts from the old root systems can still be found in mountain forests, and one goal of The American Chestnut Foundation is to collect pollen from those native trees for use in the breeding process.
The foundation developed the blight-resistant trees using backcross-breeding over a number of years.