Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Legacy of the American Chestnut in North Georgia

The majestic American Chestnut once occupied about 25% of the Appalachian forest, including the coves and valleys of the north Georgia mountains. Growing rapidly to heights of over one hundred feet and diameters of six to fifteen feet, the Chestnut was truly the king of the high forest and upper Piedmont. The chestnut blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was accidentally introduced to the United States via imported trees somewhere around 1900, and in the course of 40-50 years virtually wiped out all of the mature American Chestnut trees from Maine to Georgia.

The importance of the Chestnut to the people living in north Georgia made it's demise very painful. Chestnut was the timber of choice for the construction of houses, barns, fences and furniture. The abundant yearly nut crops were gathered for livestock feed and for sale and export as a valued food source, providing much needed income. The nuts were also a prime source of food for wildlife- populations of deer, turkey and bear suffered for years from the sudden lack of chestnut mast. On a personal level, I wonder what the mountain forests must have been like with these huge, imposing trees as part of the landscape.

Today, there are remnants of the American Chestnut to be found-mostly sucker growth stubbornly clinging to what life remains in the old stumps from half a century ago. The blight finds the vast majority of saplings before they reach 12-15' tall, but there are some isolated pockets with some larger trees. There is a American Chestnut on the top of Fort Mountain in northwest Georgia I have seen that is around 30' tall and in seemingly good health so far.

Hope for the Future

While is is unlikely that we will ever see the Chestnut return to it's former glory, there are efforts underway to bring the trees back. The 30 year old American Chestnut Foundation has sponsored a backcross breeding program that is producing blight resistant seedlings that carry 15/16 of the pure genetic material from native trees and 1/16 from the Chinese Chestnut, which is able to better ward off the blight. Scientists at the University of Georgia are using pollen and genetic material from pure "Mother" and "Father" trees that survive in Virginia and Georgia in hopes of further breeding and genetic engineering that may produce disease resistant trees.

It would be a great testament to the determination of the scientific community and the many volunteers working on these projects if the Chestnut could once again get a foothold in the land it once dominated. If you would like more information. please click on the American Chestnut Foundation logo just below.

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