- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — High in the Catoctin Mountains and across the slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain, volunteers are working to revive the American chestnut, a towering tree that once blanketed the Appalachians.

Marylanders are among the leaders of an effort to repopulate the region with a hybrid strain resistant to the fungal blight that destroyed most of the East Coast’s American chestnuts by 1950 and which is still killing them in the Midwest.

“In 15 years, we’ll have hundreds of thousands of these trees to plant in the wild,” said Doug Boucher, a Hood College biology professor and president of the Maryland chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.

The hybrid is a cross between the American chestnut and the Chinese chestnut. The Chinese version can’t match the American species’ height of more than 100 feet, but it isn’t susceptible to the blight, Mr. Boucher told the Frederick News-Post.

Association members have crossed the species to produce a blight-resistant hybrid and are in the process of breeding the American back in. Their goal is a sixth-generation tree that will be just one-sixteenth Chinese, possessing most of the American characteristics but resistant to blight.

The project dates to the start of the Bennington, Vt.-based foundation in 1983.

“In Maryland, we’ve done the third back-crossing, and in Pennsylvania and Virginia, the fifth generation was recently planted,” Mr. Boucher said.

Most of the Maryland hybrids are at ThorpeWood, a 100-acre environmental education center in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont in northern Frederick County.

Planted in 1999, the trees show varying degrees of blight resistance. Some have died, others are strong and many have grown cankers that indicate the tree is fighting the disease, which typically attacks in the third or fourth year.

Stephen Dodge, manager of the American Chestnut Orchard at ThorpeWood, said that in June, about a dozen of the strongest trees will be inoculated with blight fungus to study their resistance.

Separately, Mr. Boucher and other volunteers are nurturing 100 percent American chestnuts at Sugarloaf Mountain, a privately owned nature preserve open to the public, in southern Frederick County.

They gather the nuts in early fall from shrubby young trees that haven’t yet been affected by blight. In the spring, they plant seedlings and hand-pollinate promising specimens. In the summer, they weed around the young trees.

This project aims to identify trees that are slow to get the blight, so that their genetic material can be incorporated into the restoration effort, Mr. Boucher said.


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