American chestnuts still exist in Virginia forests

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STAUNTON, Va. (AP) - Mark Gatewood planted four chestnut trees at the Frontier Culture Museum four years ago.

Now retired, a lecture series in his honor at the museum has been going on for the past month hitting on the history of the American chestnut and the restoration of the population in the area.

What once filled the landscape of the eastern United States, American chestnut trees are considered one of the more important trees in the region but have been hard to find since the early 1900s.

In and around the Shenandoah Valley, the spread of the blight in the 1930s and 1940s destroyed the trees in the Piedmont and mountainous areas along the western part of the state, said Kathy Marmet of the American Chestnut Foundation Virginia Chapter.

Roughly one in four trees in the Appalachian forest was American chestnut just prior to the spread of the blight, Marmet said. The Asian fungus brought into the country on a Chinese chestnut tree infected the breed locally.

“I wish there was a way to figure out how to get them back,” McLaughlin said. “(Instead), now they’re actually hybridizing the American chestnut and Chinese chestnut.”

The Chinese chestnut is resistant to the blight, and the new hybrid looks and acts like the American chestnut, but is capable of fighting off the disease. The Augusta County Forestry Center has been attempting to breed hybrid forms for almost a decade.

Eric Bryan, who put the lecture series together, said most of the hybrids that are being produced today are 15/16th American chestnut with the remaining 1/16th Chinese chestnut - attempting to make it as close to the original as possible while still maintaining a defense against blight.

The American chestnut could grow up to 150 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, and the nuts were a dietary staple for many Americans and animals. The Chinese breed is a shorter tree and has more stems than the American. The American chestnut was also ideal for timber farmers and wood, because it’s not as susceptible to rotting.

If the hybrid trees have more Chinese chestnut in them, they will be shorter and won’t provide as much good wood for logging.

But, according to Marmet, there are still millions of American chestnuts remaining in Virginia’s forests, but they are smaller - and whatever remains will most likely be infected and die.

For about five years, the forest center has been part of a research program with the American Chestnut Foundation testing the Chinese-American chestnut hybrids.

“(At) the tree nursery here, we actually plant seed from the American Chestnut Foundation’s research trees and grow them seedlings to test,” Joshua McLaughlin said. Other farms, like Pettijohns’ Orchard in Raphine also breed hybrid American/Chinese chestnuts.

“A lot of these, we grow them here and then they don’t know until a few years later when they plant them … what lives and what doesn’t,” McLaughlin said.

When growing in the forestry center, the plant is just a seedling that stands a few feet tall.

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