Chestnut Tree Story

Sara Fitzsimmons demonstrates blight fungus inoculation technique to volunteers; photo by Steve Williams

Sara Fitzsimmons demonstrates blight fungus inoculation technique to volunteers. PHOTO: STEVE WILLIAMS

After three decades of work breeding blight resistance into American chestnut trees, the trees are ready to be reintroduced into forests, according to Sara Fitzsimmons, the north-central region science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation and a research support technologist in the School of Forest Resources.

The new American chestnuts will be reintroduced into forests, with natural selection eliminating those that are not blight resistant. It can take more than a decade for an American chestnut to be infected by the blight and die, so it will take some time to find out if the breeding has been a success.

Chestnut trees used to dominate the landscape in the East, but the species was virtually eliminated by an Asian blight fungus carried on exotic plant materials imported by plant explorers in the late 1800s.

“The American chestnut once ranked as the most important wildlife plant in the eastern United States,” Fitzsimmons said. The tree and its nuts supported many species indigenous to Pennsylvania, according to Fitzsimmons.

The American Chestnut Foundation has spearheaded the effort to restore these trees since the early 1980s. To introduce blight resistance, workers have been crossbreeding the American chestnuts with Chinese chestnut trees. The next-generation hybrids were then bred with American chestnuts to retain desirable American chestnut traits.

It may take centuries for the American chestnut to once again grow wild, but the huge trees may eventually return to their place of dominance in the forests of the eastern United States.

Chestnut leaves; photo by Steve Williams