- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

FRUITLAND, Md. (AP) — Those chestnuts roasting on an open fire probably are not from the United States — a disease nearly wiped out American chestnuts more than a century ago.

But surveyors in Wicomico County think they have spotted the rare American chestnut trees in a patch of woods.

Chuck Ward, a forest conservationist for the Salisbury-Wicomico Department of Planning, Zoning and Community Development, said he’s willing to investigate.

“I’ve never seen any around here but … I’ll go looking,” he told the Daily Times in Salisbury.

The potential discovery comes as farm researchers are working to revive American chestnuts, which were common along the East Coast until an Asian disease felled most of them.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, researchers are experimenting with more than 50 varieties of chestnuts, hoping to revive American chestnuts as a viable crop.

Tom Handwerker, an agriculturist at the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore, knows of no research attempts on the Eastern Shore to cultivate “a new genetic chestnut.”

What is being cultivated is a new hybrid that is disease resistant, he said.

Smaller, thick-trunked Chinese chestnut trees would likely bear the prickly fruit in this region.

The variety grows on average to about 30 feet, almost half the size of an original American chestnut.

“But they are mostly for landscaping and not for nuts,” Mr. Handwerker said.

The shortage means most chestnuts are imported, said Jules Janick, who heads the Center for New Crops and Plant Products at Purdue University in Indiana.

The center tracks trends in agricultural production and calls the American chestnut tree a rare find.

“In Italy, you’ll find the big ones, and the nuts you see are all imported,” he said. “The old-fashioned (American) chestnut, they all died. They got diseased all over the country.”

Despite successful cultivation of the smaller Chinese variety in parts of the Midwest, South and the eastern United States, a search is on for the traditional native species, Mr. Janick said.

“Can chestnuts come back?” he asked. “There is a lot of interest, but we can’t grow any because they all died.”

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