Seeds of Hope: American Chestnut Replanting

by Catherine Howell

As the late afternoon light began to fade and frigid air penetrated gloved hands, the last of the Arlington replanted American Chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) was patted into place on a slope in Glencarlyn Park on a gray day in mid-December, 2013. There, with some serious luck, it could grow into a sturdy tree with viable fruit and possibly help reverse the bad fortune of the iconic American Chestnut––once one of the most common tree species in the northeastern United States, but now largely decimated due to a virulent fungus.

Vincent and Jerry backfill the last hole of the day on a slope in Glencarlyn Park while County Natural Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas tamps down the soil.

Arlington County Forester Vincent Verweij and ARMN volunteer Jerry Cowden backfill the last hole of the day on a slope in Glencarlyn Park, while County Natural Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas tamps down the soil.

Chestnut Blight Fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was introduced into North America through Japanese or Chinese Chestnuts; those species co-evolved with the fungus and are not affected by it. American Chestnuts, however, soon succumbed to the novel pathogen. More than three billion native chestnuts perished, removing a species that was a valuable source of timber and a prolific native producer of fall mast for wildlife.

American Chestnuts survive locally in a very limited fashion. Most grow as shoots from stumps of decimated trees and rarely reach 20 feet in height. December’s replanting project involved the distribution of a hundred saplings grown at the Earth Sangha nursery from viable seeds collected mainly in the northern Blue Ridge. Unlike the hybrid trees that are bred from American and Chinese Chestnuts (with an effort to back breed the American species’ characteristics while maintaining blight resistance), these saplings represent true American Chestnuts.

According to City of Alexandria Natural Resource Specialist and Plant Ecologist Rod Simmons, who supervised the planting of 20 trees at Dora Kelley Nature Park in Alexandria in an area where the native chestnut is known to occur, “It is reasonable to assume that some of the plantings will be fairly blight resistant or tolerant because they came from local stock that was resistant enough to produce viable fruit.”

The Dora Kelley trees were planted in two concentrated clusters, a kind of “strength in numbers” approach, one of two strategies used to promote natural propagation. [Rod wrote an in-depth report on the December 13 Dora Kelley plantings, with photos. ARMN members can view Rod’s posting on the listserv for December 20, 2013.]

Under the supervision of Arlington County Forester Vincent Verweij, 20 saplings were planted in smaller groups at dispersed Arlington locations: Bon Air Park, Benjamin Banneker Park, Fort C.F. Smith, Fort Scott, Glencarlyn Park, Long Branch and Gulf Branch Nature Centers, as well as an experimental site along Route 50.

Verweij pointed out that the dispersed-planting strategy creates a variety of growing conditions with the hope that some will be successful for the pioneering saplings. The rest of the hundred specimens were designated for planting in McLean and in the District, including at the National Arboretum.

ARMN volunteers participated in both the Alexandria and Arlington replantings. The photos here show efforts at Long Branch Nature Center and Glencarlyn Park, where ARMN members were joined by several staff members from the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, as well as by County Natural Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas.

Michele Braithwaite, Communications Coordinator for the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, excavates a hole for a sapling at Long Branch.

Michele Braithwaite, Communications Coordinator for the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, excavates a hole for a sapling at Long Branch Nature Center.

Mattock at hand to break up roots, Arlington County Forester Vincent Verweij supervises ARMN volunteer Jerry Cowden as he digs a hole to receive a chestnut sapling at Long Branch Nature Center.

Mattock at hand to break up roots, Vincent Verweij watches Jerry Cowden dig a hole  at Long Branch.

The saplings will be monitored through the coming months––and ideally, years––with the hope that they might play a part in the eventual return of the magnificent American Chestnut to its place of prominence in our forests.

(Photos by Catherine Howell)

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2 thoughts on “Seeds of Hope: American Chestnut Replanting

  1. Awesome, I hope this is successful and leads to the recovery of the species. A day well spent.

  2. Congratulations! So wonderful to see chestnuts replanted in Glencarlyn where we were amazed in 2007 to see still living trees the first Spring our local American Chestnut Foundation chapter was formed. The last of those stump sprouts succumbed to blight before we could pollinate them.
    Please keep us posted on any that reach flowering size. A worthy Master Naturalist project indeed!

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