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Cataloochee Ranch announces tours of experimental American chestnut orchard

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.


“These mountains were once blanketed with stands of American chestnut, and this orchard, in many ways tells the story of the century-long battle to return this beautiful tree to our forests,” says Dr. Paul Sisco, a retired geneticist who volunteers at Cataloochee Ranch on behalf of The American Chestnut Foundation.

Cataloochee Ranch’s orchard is mainly composed of fourth generation back-crossed American chestnuts which provide potential resistance to the deadly blight that killed more than 4 billion American chestnut trees. Now in their sixth growing season, the trees will be tested for resistance to chestnut blight by inoculating each tree with the fungus that causes the blight. TACF scientists can then determine which trees carry the resistance.

Once the mighty giant of eastern forests, American chestnuts stood up to 100 feet tall and numbered in the billions. In 1904, a blight, accidentally imported from Asia, spread rapidly through the American chestnut population. By 1950, the blight fungus had killed virtually all the mature trees from Maine to Georgia. Several attempts to breed blight-resistant trees in the mid-1900s were unsuccessful.

Then in 1983, a dedicated group of scientists formed The American Chestnut Foundation and began a special breeding process, which in 2005 produced the first potentially blight-resistant trees called Restoration Chestnuts. Now assisted by nearly 6,000 members and volunteers in 23 states, the organization is undertaking the planting of Restoration Chestnuts in select locations, which include reclaimed mined land, throughout the eastern U.S. as part of the Foundation’s early restoration and testing efforts.

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Cataloochee Ranch is a guest ranch located high above Maggie Valley that opened its doors to guests in 1934. Tom and Judy Alexander were the original owners/operators, and now, the ranch is in the hands of the third generation of Alexanders. In addition to caring for the guests, the current owners are strong in their conviction of caring for the land and the forests. Much of Cataloochee property has been placed into a conservation easement with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy holding the agreement. This easement protects about 300 acres of ranch land from development while allowing all recreational and agricultural activities.


Cataloochee Ranch Chestnut Orchard Tours

Where: Cataloochee Ranch, Maggie Valley,

When: Beginning at 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 13.

More info: Guided tours of the orchard will begin June 13 and be available every Wednesday throughout the summer. The guided tours include lunch and cost $15. Reservations are required. Call 828.926.1401 to make your reservation. Self-guided tours of the orchard are available at any time beginning June 13. Donations are greatly appreciated.

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