Is the chestnut making a comeback?

out chestnutsVolunteers and scientists planted 200 American chestnut seedlings in the Nantahala National Forest that are hopefully blight resistant in efforts to restore the mighty giant to its rightful place as king of the Appalachian forest.

The project is part of the the American Chestnut Foundation’s restoration program to return the tree to its native range.

This planting is part a larger project to plant and monitor more than 4,000 American chestnuts in six national forests in the eastern United States. American chestnuts once made up 25 percent of eastern hardwood forests but were nearly wiped out by the chestnut blight in the 20th century.

“Being in a position to help restore the American chestnut is the professional opportunity of a lifetime,” said Paul Berrang, regional geneticist for U.S. Forest Service’s Eastern Region.

Once considered the king of the eastern forests, American chestnuts stood up to 100 feet tall and numbered in the billions. They were a vital part of the forest ecology, a key food source for wildlife and an essential component of the human economy.

In 1904 the fungal pathogen responsible for chestnut blight — accidentally imported from Asia — spread rapidly through the tree population. By 1950 it had killed virtually all the mature trees from Maine to Georgia. Several attempts to breed blight resistant trees in the mid-1900s were unsuccessful.

In 1983, a group of scientists formed began a special breeding process, which in 2005 produced the first potentially blight-resistant trees. Now assisted by nearly 6,000 members and volunteers in 23 states, The American Chestnut Foundation is undertaking the planting of these special breeds in select locations.

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