By Allen Nichols, President of The American Chestnut Foundation, New York Chapter
Above: Allen Nichols doing a chestnut planting demonstration with home schoolers in Plattsburgh, NY.
I became aware of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) when my father pointed out the remains of dead trees to me when I was just a boy. I was aware of the resprouts that keep coming up and then dying back from the blight. Then, when I was a teenager I witnessed the death of all the great American elms on our farm, which gave me a vision of what must have happened when the Chestnut blight killed all the chestnuts 50+ years earlier. I think that the devastation to ash trees today by Emerald Ash Borer and ash yellows and decline is giving the next generation a glimpse of what has happened in the past.
Above: Nichols with a large 20″ DBH American chestnut he located last fall. It is severely blighted, the top is dead, and you can see the bark falling off the tree at the top of the photo.
Twenty five years ago, Herb Darling along with several others established the NY chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) to work with SUNY-ESF in Syracuse. The goal of researchers at ESF was to try to use the newest technology to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut. Their progress has been phenomenal, as you can see in this video. (Note that we have progressed beyond the stage in the video, to where we have confirmed resistance in our tree and are applying for approval to release it to the public. Also, there’s a section unrelated to the American chestnut that you need to skip past).
Now comes the part of getting the blight-resistant trees into the forest. That is where you come in! We need people all over NY and in other states to plant pure wild American chestnuts so they have trees to cross with our blight-resistant tree, when it is approved for release, hopefully in the next few years.
Above: American chestnut that Nichols planted 13 years ago, that just began mature enough to flower. These are the male catkins that produce the pollen. Nichols says, “I often get asked, ‘Will the wild type American chestnut trees, planted for mother trees, get big enough to flower before they get the blight?’ The answer is yes, as a tree planted where there is no blight usually will get big enough to flower. That is not true for most of the sprouts from the old roots, as there is usually a lot of blight on old sprouts from the same stump.”
This crossing will capture the genetic diversity of the remaining trees—those that get big enough to flower and produce pollen, but inevitably succumb to the blight—so that these future crossed trees will have enough genetic diversity to survive other stresses they may encounter in the future. We need to locate these wild American chestnut trees before they die so we can cross them with our blight-resistant tree as soon as we have permission to release it. We will have blight-resistant pollen available to do this as soon as we get approval.
The NY chapter of TACF sends nuts to all the NY members, free of charge, so they can start “mother” tree orchards, which the chapter can send you guidance on. Some considerations for making your own “two-tree orchard” can be found at the end of this post. Anyone interested in nuts to plant or more information on the NY chapter of TACF can contact Allen Nichols at 607-263-5105, or firstname.lastname@example.org or go here to read more or join our active chapter.
“Chestnut Tree” (Helen’s Song) was inspired by the stories told by Helen Titch Nichols, born in 1924:
This Song was written in dedication to Allen Nichols’ mother, Helen, on her 90th birthday and proceeds from this song support the New York State chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation.
Planting “Mother Trees” for Two-Tree Orchards: Why and How
Above: Nichols hands out seedlings at his talks and at fairs to anyone who wants to join TACF-NY, so they can start their “mother” tree orchard.
We need to plant mother trees now so we can produce blight resistant nuts as quickly as possible after our blight resistant tree is approved for release. There are several items that control how and why this is needed and done.
First is the fact that American chestnut trees are self-sterile so they need another tree for pollination to produce viable nuts.
Second is the fact that we do not want to plant two of the blight resistant trees adjacent to each other as the resulting nuts will be inbred. Therefore, initially we want to cross the blight resistant trees with nonresistant (also called wild type) trees to get good genetic diversity for the long range health of the American chestnut.
Third, with good sunlight an American chestnut will usually produce male catkins and pollen in about 5 years, but usually start producing female flowers, or burs, only after about 8 years.
Fourth, in order to have “mother” trees producing female flowers by the time the blight resistant trees start to produce pollen, they will need a “head start.”
Fifth, if two or more non-resistant “mother” trees are growing close together, and producing pollen, they will mostly pollinate each other and few or none of the resulting nuts will have been pollinated by the smaller and younger blight resistant tree.
Sixth is the fact that we expect to have our blight resistant tree approved for release to the public in 3 to 5 years.
Finally, our recommendation now is to plant several mother trees in a small orchard about 15’ apart. Then when your blight-resistant tree gets big enough to produce pollen you will need to trim back all the mother trees that are producing pollen, except one and collect nuts from the mother tree. When your blight resistant tree gets big enough to produce burs and nuts you can then let all the mother trees grow and produce pollen and collect nuts from your blight resistant tree. —Allen Nichols, President of NY Chapter of TACF