Call – Opelika –Auburn News
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.
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
“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
“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: www.acf.org 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. + + +