Appalachia sees Chestnut revival take root thanks to EKU efforts

The American chestnut tree once thrived in Appalachia. Thanks to the Kentucky chapter of The American Chestnut Federation (TACF), the Arbor Day Foundation, Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, it may one day again.

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Volunteers from surrounding communities and states planted 615 new chestnut seedlings in four plots at the TACF Regional Seed Orchard at EKU on Nov. 29. Their efforts brought the total number of seedlings on the land to more than 3,000. The plants have been bred to resist to a fungal blight that has killed billions of Chestnut trees, all but wiping the species from the map.

“These eastern giants once resided in the Daniel Boone Forest. Due to the American chestnut blight, they are no longer there,” said Dan Olsen, supervisor of the Daniel Boone National Forest. “The EKU American chestnut research orchard is the starting point that represents that sometime in the future, maybe 100 years from now, the harvested seeds from this orchard will bring these eastern giants back.”

The seedlings are designated “B3F2.” The B3 indicates that they are the result of three generations of back crossing — a type of selective breeding that combines blight-resistant hybrids with native plants. The F2 indicates that the line includes the cross of two hybrid, blight-resistant parents.

Eventually, the seedlings will be inoculated with the blight, and trees that exhibit too many characteristics of their non-native ancestors may be culled, creating a survival-of-the-fittest scenario. Only one or two of the strongest trees will remain in each plot.

The backcrossing process takes decades, but the goal is to create a Chestnut species that is indistinguishable from native trees, while still being genetically predisposed to survive Chestnut blight, said Tom Saielli, Mid-Atlantic Regional Science Coordinator for TACF.

“This orchard is so successful because of all the hard work performed by the students and faculty of EKU, UT Chattanooga, local volunteers and other various people who work at the state and local level from Tennessee and Kentucky coming together and pitching in to help,” Saielli said.

UT Chattanooga is a partner in the conservation project. Among the volunteers were two students and a professor, who traveled more than 250 miles to help with the planting.

“This is a historic moment for Kentucky, Tennessee and The American Chestnut Foundation,” said Hill Craddock, professor of biology at UT Chattanooga. “These are the trees from which the future forests of the American chestnut will descend.”

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To protect the trees as they mature, volunteers also built an 8-foot-high deer fence. “The leaves of the American chestnut tree are like ice cream to deer,” said Chris Pearl, associate director of facilities services at EKU.

The American Chestnut is a large, fast-growing deciduous tree that is native to North America. It is prized as a rapidly renewable source of hardwood, as well as for producing edible nuts that are traditionally consumed around the holidays. (Think “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”)

The Chestnut blight is thought to have been introduced in the early 1900s with the import of Asian chestnut trees. While the Asian species long ago developed blight resistance, American chestnut trees had no natural immunity to the airborne fungal infection.

The partnership between EKU and TACF began in April 2016 with the establishment of the seed orchard. In that first spring, more than 1,200 seedlings were planted. Another 1,500 were added earlier this year on Arbor Day.

EKU is committed to reviving the American chestnut, as well as engaging students and staff in the spirit of conservation. Its efforts have been recognized by The Arbor Day Foundation — EKU has been continuously recognized by the foundation as a Tree Campus USA.

To obtain the distinction, universities must meet five core standards for sustainable campus forestry required by Tree Campus USA: establishment of a tree advisory committee; evidence of a campus tree-care plan; dedicated annual expenditures for its campus tree program; an Arbor Day observance; and the sponsorship of student service-learning projects.

“This is our 8th consecutive year earning The Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA re-certification,” said Randy Wilson, program coordinator for EKU Facilities Services. “I think, without EKU’s commitment to Tree Campus USA, EKU may never have had the opportunity to serve The American Chestnut Foundation in restoring and reintroducing the American chestnut tree back into its native landscape”