There's an exciting new possibility that American chestnut trees may once again populate eastern forests. Last year, Nathan Klaus, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources, was hiking on Pine Mountain near Warm Springs, GA, when he spotted an extremely rare stand of healthy American chestnut trees.
More than four billion trees from Maine to Georgia and west to Indiana and Illinois were wiped out by an Asian fungus that made its way into the United States in 1904. While some trees still survive -- an estimated two or three per county in the former range -- they almost always succumb to the disease.
The tree found in Georgia is about 40 feet tall with a diameter of 8 to 10 inches, and it is thought to be about 30 years old. There are also several other chestnuts within 50 yards or so that are big enough to produce flowers and fruit. "I've never seen one this big in a condition this good," said David Keehn, breeding coordinator of Georgia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. "There's no sign of blight on it, and there is blight in the area, so we think the tree probably has some level of resistance."
Pollen was recently collected from the specimen, and it will go into the breeding program of the American Chestnut Foundation. According to Keehn, the new trees will be crossed with a Chinese chestnut that's not affected by the blight -- then crossed back until scientists have "a tree that's indistinguishable from the American chestnut with high blight resistance."
The American chestnut was highly prized for its rot-resistant hardwood and for its abundant nuts, which were sold during the Christmas season and for livestock feed. It was also one of the country's most impressive native trees, reaching 100 feet high with a diameter of four to eight feet. If the breeding program is successful, these magnificent American natives will again be introduced to native forests.