Richard Wilhelm knows about the rise and fall of the American chestnut — how a foreign blight inadvertently wiped out the grandest tree in the North American forests in little over a half century.
He also knows there are survivors — chestnuts that still grow for a few years until the blight kills them anew. He knows what the trees and their distinctive tooth-edged leaves look like.
So walking along West Flag Swamp Road in Roxbury, he spotted one along the roadside, with a trunk of about 16 inches in diameter.
“This was one of the biggest I’ve seen,” he said.
Thanks to Wilhelm’s eye and to the work of the state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation — a group dedicated to bringing the American chestnut back to its past glory — the Roxbury tree got properly pollinated. This year, it produced about 250 nuts. They can be replanted, and with luck, can grow and fruit as well.
“That was a very good haul,” Wilhelm said.
The road to chestnut recovery is a long and uncertain one. The fungus that causes the blight — Chryphonectria parasitia — is still around. That’s why the chestnut trees people find in the woods, often growing out of old stumps, are puny.
“They grow to about an inch in diameter at 10 to 15 feet high,” said Paul Elconin, director of land conservation for the Kent-based Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust. Then, they die back.
“We do have a little, scraggly tree,” said Cathy Hagadorn, executive director of the Deer Pond Farm nature preserve in Sherman, owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society. “Unfortunately, it’s growing in a very rocky area without a lot of sun.”
That may change. The American Chestnut Foundation has approached The Connecticut Audubon Society about planting a small chestnut orchard at Deer Pond Farm.
“We’re not there yet,” Hagadorn said of the project. “But we’re definitely interested.”
Other people are interested about the American chestnut as well because of what it once was, and the hopes for what it might be. The state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation’s website is at www.acf.org/ct
The story is this. By the mid-19th century, the American chestnut was one the great trees in the forest of eastern North America, growing from Georgia to Maine.
Called the redwood of the East, it towered in the woods, growing up to 100 feet tall. Its wood was resistant to rot, and easy to work with. People used it for building barns and foundations, for poles for stringing telephone lines, for home interiors and musical instruments.
It also grew fast in open spaces. When farmers abandoned a pasture, the chestnut trees took over. Their nuts fed wildlife and livestock. People gathered them and sold them in markets.
“They bloom very late in the season,” said Sandra Anagnostakis, agricultural scientist emeritus at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, “so they weren’t in danger of frost damage.”
There were billions of them. Anagnostakis, who has been doing chestnut tree research for the station since 1983, has estimated there were 130 million chestnut trees in Connecticut alone.
Chinese chestnuts imported into the United States in the late 19th century carried the lethal fungus to our shores. American chestnuts had no resistance to the disease, which enters into any small wound in the trees’ bark and chokes off the trees’ circulatory system.
Botanists discovered the disease at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. It spread rapidly. By the 1950s, the American chestnut was no more. The blight’s been called the worst ecological disaster in history to strike the world’s forests.
The state’s agricultural experiment station began working on developing a blight-resistant chestnut in the 1930s, cross-breeding American chestnuts with more disease-resistant species from Asia, Anagnostakis said. The station now has one of the world’s best collections of chestnut varieties.
They aren’t soaring, wild trees. But Anagnostakis said people have successfully planted chestnut orchards, using hybridized trees, and are selling the nuts commercially.
More exciting, she said, is the work at the State University of New York at Syracuse, which has developed a genetically-modified, blight-resistant American chestnut tree.
Meanwhile, Swatt of the American Chestnut Foundation and his volunteers are working as Johnny Chestnutseeds, planting chestnuts wherever there are people willing to watch over them as they grow.
“We want to plant 10 seeds from 10 different trees in each orchard to preserve genetic diversity,” Swatt said. “Hopefully, we’ll start in the spring.”