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Tree in a coma.

Once king of the eastern forests, the American chestnut is today little more than a blighted relic. But a team of champions is working to revive it--and there is real hope.

At first glance it doesn't look like much at all--just another thin sprout springing up from the forest floor, seeming to strain toward the streaks of sunlight that sift into the understory. You might brush past it, but if you know its species' precious past and precarious future, you'll stop to admire, this sprout this uncertain heir to a dubious dynasty. You'll stop to wish it well.

The American chestnut shows up in the Appalachian range, in protected pockets of central Mississippi, and in cloistered forests in Wisconsin and on the prairieland of Iowa. Today its tender sprouts are a rare find, but a century ago, this tree towered above all others, ruling the central range.

Its leaves and trunk are its ruin, but deep within its roots lies its future. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the most prolific tree in the eastern forest, spreading out over some 200 million acres in and around the Appalachian region and constituting about 25 percent of the forests in the central range. The American chestnut was found as far north as Maine and as far south as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. It grew from the Atlantic Coast into eastern Michigan and southern Illinois.

It was truly a money tree, the driving force behind lucrative industries in lumber and produce. Its wood was unsurpassed for building, and its nuts were an endless food source for both man and animal.

Rising hundreds of feet in the forest canopy, chestnut branches were home to birds seeking the high life. Because it grew straighter and stronger than other trees, the chestnut's wood was the finest lumber money could buy, and was far more rot-resistant than other types of wood. After a tree was cut down, its rugged root system would allow it to spring back to life, as if by magic. With a lifespan averaging 400 years, the American chestnut was invincible--or so it seemed.

"There were more chestnut trees on Lookout Mountain than there were anything else," 81-year-old William Raoul said in describing the woods of his boyhood in east Tennessee. One ridge on the mountain was called "The Hog's Back"--not an uncommon name for a ridge in those days, yet this particular hog's spine was literally spiked with chestnut trees. Each spring the ridges were capped with a downy cloak of fragrant, cream-colored blossoms. Each fall the forest floor was carpeted with bronze, bristly burrs that contained the nuts enjoyed in Thanksgiving stuffing and sold roasted on street corners across America.

But that was then, and this is now. Today all that remains of these huge trees are hollow stumps, relics of another era in which the chestnut prospered and prevailed. These remembrances of times past are all but lost to today's generation because a deadly fungus claimed the forest's grandest tree, striking it down just as it hit its prime.

The fungus the scientists call Cryphonectria parasitica (previously known as Endothia parasitica) first reared its ugly head in New York City in 1904.

The American chestnut differed from its European and Asian counterparts in that its fruit was smaller and its overall size was larger. The ultimate tree would yield the most lumber and the largest chestnuts. In the late 1800s, some well-meaning growers imported chestnut trees from Japan and China. They planned to crossbreed the trees, producing a composite tree with the American size and the Asian chestnuts.

But those grand plans fell apart when the American trees became infected with the killing blight. It was brought over on the bark of the Asian trees, which were immune to the disease. The fungus entered through a wound and grew quickly through the sapwood, choking and eventually cutting off the flow of water and sap. Cankers resulted, girdling the tree and killing the area above the infection. Efforts to eradicate and control the fungus proved futile, and the spores were spread by wind, rain, birds, and insects.

It moved southward through the eastern United States at a rate of some 50 miles a year. Its progression down the Appalachian forest was all too apparent as it left millions of trees withering in its wake. By the 1930s, the fungus had moved into Georgia, and by the 1940s, ravaged ridges were all that remained of the once-dense chestnut ranges. What was arguably the forest's best and brightest tree was gone--reduced to a gray and ghostly skeleton.

Since the wood was so rot-resistant, many of the stumps and fallen trunks remain even today, hollow vestiges of yesteryear. But is the American chestnut merely a memory?

As vulnerable as it might seem, the chestnut still has its roots. Buried well beneath the soil's surface, they are protected from the blight, and although the fungus has been ravaging the species for nearly a century, the older root systems are still sending up occasional shoots. A seed is rarely produced; a new seedling is rarer still.

Although isolated mature trees are surviving in some parts of the country, most of those are outside the species' natural range. Some have been found within the original area of growth, but scientists fear it is just a matter of time before the blight claims them too. If you're younger than 60, chances are you've never seen a chestnut tree, held its spiky burr in your hand, or harvested its golden nuts and glorious lumber. But recent research shows it might be possible to change the chestnut's future.

Working to make that happen are botanists and businessmen, teachers and traders, geneticists and housewives, farmers and financiers. They're from the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and they meet in cloistered forests across the U.S. to search for young sprouts and travel together to make transplants. They speak in terms of hypovirulence, genetic backcrossings, and grafts. Though most of them are laymen, their collective literacy on the near-extinct species is staggering. There are groups and foundations from the local and state levels all the way up to international. They are the champions of the chestnut tree, and they will stop at nothing short of restoring its status as king of the mountain.

The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) was founded in 1982 by Philip Rutter and Charles Burnham, the latter a world-renowned cytogeneticist. The pair believed that the American chestnut could survive only if crossbred with blight-resistant species.

The tall, soft-spoken Rutter is deeply committed to the cause of the chestnut. "I had an uncle who showed me chestnut stumps that were 30 years old!" recalled Rutter, who graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor's degree in biology and later earned a master's in zoology from the University of Minnesota.

"When I was studying ecology, it just never made sense for a species to be so successful and so vulnerable at the same time. It was a scientific and ecological puzzle," he said. That confusion drove Rutter to discover more about the mighty tree's downfall, and he maintains that it can be brought back.

"With all the experience we've had in breeding plants, restoring the chestnut that way looks like a fairly straightforward process. You have to remember that the tree is on our side. We can get there a heck of a lot quicker than people think."

In an essay to the Natural Resources Council of America, Rutter explained the motives behind his mission to restore the species: "Hopelessness is one of our greatest enemies. If the majority of humankind comes to the conclusion that we are powerless to alter the apparent downward spiral of our biosphere, support for the difficult and endless tasks necessary to preserve the health of the world may waver. There is no substitute for the will to put things right, and to keep them that way. And there is no better brace for our collective will than a big win--something to demonstrate that we can, really can, make a difference. Just possibly, restoring the American chestnut might be that big win. But it is clear that we are going to need the support of the conservation community to make the restoration, and the win, a reality."

In 1989 the family of Anna Belle and John Wagner gave the Foundation a research farm in Meadowview, Virginia, where the bulk of its research and breeding is now conducted. More than 3,200 chestnut trees are growing there, including 700 second back-crosses, 300 first back-crosses, and 300 first hybrids. Researchers will begin third backcrosses this year and are only one cross away from the end of their breeding program (about seven years).

"The end is not imminent, but it's closer," says farm superintendent Fred V. Hebard. After only two years, crossbred saplings are already producing blooms. Awareness about the chestnut is blossoming as well, and the foundation's membership has grown to well over 1,700.

"It seems to be the general consensus that the best chance of overcoming the debilitating fungus and restoring the chestnut to our forests is to somehow build up blight resistance in our own trees," explained William Raoul, a member of the board of the American Chestnut Foundation, which is based in Bennington, Vermont, and Morgantown, West Virginia. Through careful cross-breeding with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees, the Foundation hopes to create a blight-resistant offspring that is 94 percent American.

The ACF has some of the best and brightest minds in the nation working with it on this project. Norman Borlaug, the world's only Nobel-prize-winning plant breeder, serves on its board, as does Peter Raven, who heads up the highly acclaimed Missouri Botanical Garden. Attorney Donald Willeke, a prime mover in ACF's creation, helped to incorporate the Foundation and serves on its board in addition to his duties as chairman of the National Urban Forest Council and vice president of AMERICAN FORESTS.

"The network of individuals, organizations, and institutions working with us is just incredible," says John Herrington, the Foundation's executive director. Through articles in nationally and internationally renowned publications, more and more Americans are finding out about the plight of the American chestnut, and are choosing to get involved. In addition to the American Chestnut Foundation, some of the groups actively working to restore the tree include:

* American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation (based in Newport, Virginia)

* Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station

* Various universities including, but not limited to, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of Georgia at Athens, Syracuse University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Kentucky, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, and West Virginia University

* New York Botanical Garden.

From individuals and small special-interest groups to nationally renowned botanical gardens and international corporations, every effort makes a difference. Environmentally aware businesses are also adding a helping hand to the tree. Opryland USA, a musical theme park in Nashville, invited the ACF to plant several sprouts at the attraction's hotel last spring. The sprouts were transplanted from Lookout Mountain into the hotel's atrium, where they are receiving care that any guest would envy and being seen by thousands of curious tourists.

Last July, West Virginia University hosted the International Chestnut Conference, an intensive four-day program that drew 125 chestnut enthusiasts from all over the world. They were scientists and executives, researchers and retirees. They'd driven across Appalachia, or flown across the country. Some traveled from as far away as Italy, Switzerland, and China.

The program was jammed with technical lectures and discussions: the molecular biology of hypovirulence; physiology of the chestnut fungus; chestnut ecology, breeding, propagation, and physiology. Some saw the efforts at genetic crossing as the luck of the draw; others described elaborate methods of mapping specific genes.

Face it, chestnuts roasting on an open fire are ancient history. If you're eating roasted chestnuts, they're imports. If you take a stroll down Chestnut Street in any city, it's more than likely lined with oaks, pears, or even ginkgos, because a fungus has forced the tree into a deep sleep beneath the soil. You might say that the American chestnut is sort of in a coma.

The American Chestnut Foundation and other groups are working to reverse this tragic trend, and if they have their way, the American chestnut will rise from a deep-rooted sleep and again fill the forests with its splendid canopy.

Ellen Mason Exum is a staff writer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

The Perfect Tree

Imagine for a moment, the perfect tree. What would it be like? It might have lustrous, dark green leaves, with striking veins and sharply serrated edges. The fragrance from its flowers would be soothing and unmistakable. Its stature would be very tree-like: wind-firm, tall with a full crown and a strong, straight trunk with attractive, furrowed bark. It would cast aristocratic shade on Everyman's lawn.

This perfect tree would be disease and pest-free, would grow rapidly, and be adaptable to a broad range of climates. It would grow well in such diverse places as Lynden, Washington; Spooner, Wisconsin; and Birmingham, Alabama.

In the forest, this perfect tree would fare well in the competition for light and nutrients. It could persist a long time in the understory as a small tree and sapling, then shoot upward when given its chance. When cut or damaged, it would sprout vigorously from it roots. And it would provide a cache of sweet-tasting nuts to wildlife and man.

So bountiful in life, this perfect tree would be bountiful in death. Its wood would be strong and beautiful, with grain both colorful and intricate. Rot would not easily enter the heartwood, which would be dense and yet kind to saw and plane. Its coals would burn long and hot. Even the bark would be useful, perhaps containing a chemical, like tannin, to use in tanning leather.

Now you have an image of the perfect tree, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), a tree of heroic and tragic proportions. It dominated millions of acres over its natural range at the beginning of this century; its loss brought economic hardship to entire regions.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; American chestnut
Author:Exum, Ellen Mason
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Heritage Forests: healing the earth with trees.
Next Article:The last stand last chance?

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