Vermont chestnut stand may hold key to restoration
BERLIN -- Tucked out of sight near a well-traveled gravel road are scores of healthy American chestnut trees that could help scientists seeking to restore a species that was nearly wiped out by an invasive fungus.
Most of the trees in Berlin are tiny, some still growing out of the chestnuts that were buried by squirrels or other rodents after they fell from a healthy adult tree estimated to be 80 years old that is almost 3 feet across at the base.
It's one of a handful of locations across the country where scientists are able to study chestnut trees that have grown to maturity and are dropping chestnuts every autumn, with young trees growing from those nuts - the normal reproductive route for a healthy species.
Harmony Dalgleish, an assistant biology professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, was in Vermont last week with Sara Fitzsimmons, the regional science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation, based at Penn State University.
"You can't study this kind of thing, and you can't study really big trees and the seed regeneration in Virginia because it just doesn't happen," Dalgleish said.
On Friday, they trekked to Maine, where they are studying another American chestnut stand.
There were once an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees from Maine to Georgia. The fast-growing, rot-resistant hardwood was valued, both for the nuts and for the lumber from the trees that can grow to forest giants relatively quickly.
After the invasive blight from Asia swept the country around the turn of the 20th century, most of the full-sized trees across the range died. There are still an estimated 425 million trees, but they're small trees that die before reaching maturity. The new trees sprout from the remains of the old ones, not from the nuts.
"We call it functionally extinct," Dalgleish said. "Its function is gone. It is no longer a big canopy tree producing seeds."
The American Chestnut Foundation is developing a blight-resistant tree that could be ready for widespread distribution in the next decade or so.
Fitzsimmons and Dalgleish hope to learn how the healthy chestnut trees survive in the forest so they can use that information once the resistant trees are ready for widespread planting.
"To have a site like this ... is really going to be great for being able to model what we need to do to get this species back in the forest," Fitzsimmons said.
The Berlin location, just east of Montpelier, was discovered by the Washington County forester. The regional chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation has been monitoring the area since 2006.
The Vermont trees are not immune to the blight. A full-sized tree not far from the healthy tree has been hit by the blight. Another full-sized sick tree was cut down a few years ago.
Fitzsimmons and Dalgleish believe the stand survived because Vermont is at the northern edge of the American chestnut's range.
"It's harder for the blight to get here," Fitzsimmons said. "The blight doesn't get killed by the cold; it doesn't like it."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.