American chestnut returning to WNC?

Photo: USFS

Photo: USFS

A species of tree some thought was lost is showing promising signs of a return to western North Carolina.

The U.S. Forest Service, along with others, feels they are closer to restoring the American chestnut tree here in the mountains.

Beginning in 2009, agency researchers and partners planted close to 1,000 potentially blight-resistant American chestnut trees in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, as well as in national forests in Tennessee and Virginia. Two additional plantings were established in Tennessee and Virginia a year later. The goal is to test their resistance to Chestnut blight.

Since then, more than 80 percent of the American chestnut backcross hybrid saplings planted in the three national forests have survived. Most of the trees are healthy, growing steadily and showing differing levels of resistance so far, which is encouraging for the hopeful people working to return the tree to its native range.

As they enter their fifth year, the once-young seedlings have reached an average height of 8 feet and overcome what Forest Service scientist Stacy Clark, Ph. D., calls “planting shock” by developing a strong root system and adapting to their new environment. Clark, a researcher with the agency’s Southern Research station, oversees the project.

Before the introduction of the Chestnut blight in the early 20th century, American chestnut trees dominated forests of the eastern United States. Known as the “Redwood of the East,” the tree often reached towering heights of 150 feet. Experts estimate that at one time, one in every four hardwood trees in the East was an American chestnut.

“The chestnut was important for both the forest ecosystem and human use for several reasons,” said Forest Service Geneticist Barbara Crane, Ph. D., based in Atlanta, GA. “Its nuts were a valuable food source for both animals and people. It was resistant to most diseases and wood rot, and its wood was easy to work with for loggers.”