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Spreading chestnut (and butternut) trees.

A century ago, it was the most common tree in New York State. It was valued for its strong, durable wood. Its sweet, edible nuts are a staple for wildlife and a delicacy for people.

Then came the fungus, an invader from Europe first reported in 1906, that all but wiped out the American chestnut tree in New York State and most of its native range from Ontario to Michigan to Arkansas. A similar fate befell another native New Yorker, the butternut tree, now under attack from a canker that sucks the life from this hardwood, prized not only for its tasty nuts, but for its high quality wood used in cabinet making. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of professional foresters and concerned citizens, both the American chestnut and the butternut are on the rebound in New York State.

With the help of landowners and other keen-eyed citizens, foresters are locating healthy trees that somehow seem to have withstood the ravages of disease. While plant scientists work in laboratories to unlock the genetic secrets of these hardy survivors, foresters are establishing plantations that will ensure the continued propagation of the disease-resistant trees.

Today, the DEC tree nursery in Saratoga Springs produces healthy specimens of both the American chestnut (Castanea dentata [Marshall] Borkhausen) and the butternut (Juglans cinerea) for redistribution throughout the state. Disease-esistant American chestnuts now thrive in DEC-supervised lands across New York. One of the most successful projects is an orchard of wild American chestnuts on state-owned land in the Zoar Valley area on the border of Cattaraugus and Erie counties. The DEC Rogers Environmental Education Center in Sherburne, Chenango County, is home to a plantation of transplanted American chestnuts.

DEC foresters also have joined with the private American Chestnut Foundation to promote the location, preservation and restoration of the tree. Citizens who know of a mature, disease-resistant American chestnut are asked to pass along the location to the Foundation by contacting the local DEC forester. In some cases, landowners may be asked for permission to gather nuts from healthy American chestnuts.

The mature American chestnut has a reddish-brown bark with long, flat ridges. The leaves are six to eight inches long with pointed, saw-toothed edges. The nuts, enclosed in spiny burrs, commonly ripen and drop in the early fall. The native American tree should not be confused with its cousins, the Chinese, Japanese and European chestnut trees. The Japanese chestnut has a narrow leaf; the Chinese, a broad leaf toward the tip; and the European, hairy leaves.

To assist the recovery of the butternut tree, DEC foresters are cooperating with the U.S. Forest Service Experimental Station in St. Paul, Minnesota. Wood taken from healthy butternuts is sent to Minnesota for grafting to more resistant black walnut trees, close cousins of the butternut. Butternut grafts are returned to the DEC nursery at Saratoga Springs where seedlings are propagated for redistribution throughout New York State and part of Vermont. Botanists hope to establish a widespread native population of disease-resistant butternuts.

The butternut tree is recognized by its broad, flat bark ridges that give the trunk a sanded appearance. Leaves have 11 to 17 leaflets, including a terminal leaflet. The green-bronze husk that encloses a deeply pitted nut grows singly or in clusters of two to five. With the help of interested citizens, dedicated volunteers, botanists and foresters, both the American chestnut and the butternut once again will take a stand in New York State.
COPYRIGHT 1995 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Birmingham, Michael; Cooper, Wayne
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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