Altar Call – Opelika –Auburn News

Walter Albritton

May 15, 2011



A few people are trying to restore the American chestnut tree


            About a hundred years ago blight began killing the magnificent American chestnut tree. Within 50 years America’s “Redwood of the East” was lost. Its extinction has been called “perhaps the greatest ecological disaster” ever to occur on the North American Continent.

            But so what? Extinction happens. Does anybody care?  Is anyone doing anything to restore this tree that was once so important to the American people?

            The answer is yes. There are a few people who are trying to restore the American chestnut tree. Amazingly, one of the people who care is a 92-year-old land owner in Alabama. He happens to be my uncle, Wylie Pierson Johnson who resides in Birmingham.

            Two months ago today I rode with the State Staff Forester (USDA-NRCS) to a remote location in the woods of Bibb County. The forester is my son Tim. He had arranged a meeting with several other people on Uncle Wylie’s land. There on the chosen site we planted two small American chestnut trees. It was a unique event unlike any I had ever experienced. I felt honored to be included.

            The group included several state foresters, a representative of the non-profit American Chestnut Foundation, Uncle Wylie and several members of his family.  The saplings were planted carefully and a small fence was erected to protect the young trees from deer and other animals. To make sure the trees were adequately watered, four one gallon plastic jugs were placed upside down in the ground, with the caps removed and the bottoms cut out, around each tree. 

            One member of the group was Mac Phillippi, another land owner and president of the Alabama Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. An obvious champion of the effort to restore the chestnut tree, Phillippi inspired us all with his passion for the tree. You will find interesting excerpts from an article he wrote for the Centreville Press:

“The American chestnut trees planted are the result of 28 years of breeding effort by the American Chestnut Foundation to produce chestnut trees capable of surviving an attack of a blight that eliminated this important species from the Eastern United States.  The planting was undertaken because Mr. Johnson remembers the American chestnut and wanted to be a part of larger effort now underway” to restore the American chestnut tree to the North American Continent. 

“The American chestnut grew to what would seem today an impossible size.  These fast-growing trees could live approximately 600 years and attain diameters greater than 10 feet and heights greater than 100 feet.  It was by far the largest mast producer within its range and affected the region’s carrying capacity for species far beyond those which directly consumed the nut.  Not so long ago, the chestnut comprised 1 in 4 of the hardwoods in its natural range.  The dominance of this tree was such that the chestnut blooms of summer made the Appalachian hills appear to be covered with snow.  The tree grew tall and straight, yielding wood that was rot-resistant, strong, lightweight and easily worked.  Often called the Redwood of the East, the chestnut occupied a position of unmatched ecological and commercial value.  And we lost it.


“The problem was first discovered in New York City in 1904.  A fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly referred to as chestnut blight, had been introduced from Asia with the importation of Chinese chestnut trees for which the American tree had no resistance.  The blight stormed through the eastern United States at a rate of up to 50 miles per year.  Wildlife populations plummeted.  Within 50 years the blight had spread throughout the chestnut native range causing the ecological extinction of the American chestnut.  From Canada to Alabama, from the Ohio Valley to the Atlantic Ocean, over four billion trees were killed, leaving only the ghostlike stands of ashen trunks as a reminder of what was lost.

“Today, the chestnut lives only as a few isolated remnants of mature trees and much more commonly as living roots that continue to produce sprouts for a while until inevitably destroyed by the blight.  This ability to sprout has retained the chestnut’s presence in the eastern forest, but what was once a dominant over-story tree has been reduced to an occasional understory shrub.

“In 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization, was established with the singular purpose of restoring the American chestnut.  Our founding member, Dr. Charles Burnham, utilizing his background in the backcross breeding method in the production of hybrid grain crops, sought to save the American chestnut by crossing the American tree with the Chinese chestnut and selectively backcrossing with additional American stock to produce a tree that is in all discernable respects an American chestnut but with the required genetics to resist and survive an attack of the blight.  In each generation, most of the resulting offspring had to be destroyed.  Only those young trees displaying blight resistance and full American character could be used to move forward.  The goal was to get through six generations of backcrossing to attain a tree that is 15/16 American while fully retaining the blight resistance of the Chinese tree.

“For the past several years test plantings of these advanced trees have been performed in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service on public forest land.  Some of these still rare trees have been set aside for demonstration plantings such as that done with Wylie Johnson.  Only time will tell if these trees will have the ability to grow into the giants remembered mostly in old photographs from another era.  There is, however, a hope.  If Wylie one day is able to relive the boyhood pleasure of eating homegrown chestnuts we will have crossed a threshold on the way to the restoration of the American chestnut.

Last week Uncle Wylie shared the sad news that the two chestnut seedlings planted in March may not make it. There is no apparent healthy growth. Phillippi is sure the problem is something other than blight; the trees are too young to be affected by blight. The good news is that the seedlings will be replaced and the restoration effort will continue.

Most remarkable to me about this story is that a 92-year-old man initiated the planting of the two chestnut trees. Even more remarkable is that he intends one day to enjoy eating chestnuts from these trees! I was so impressed that I looked up the foundation website: to learn more. And I even sent a small contribution, in honor of Uncle Wylie, to the American Chestnut Foundation, 160 Zillicoa Street, Suite D, Ashville, N.C. 28801.

I hope I can live long enough to sit down with Uncle Wylie and eat a few delicious chestnuts from his trees. + + +