Healthy American Chestnut Found on New Hampshire Farm

A healthy American chestnut tree discovered on a New Hampshire farm may serve as the "mother tree" to bring back a species nearly wiped out by Asian blight.

The tree was found on a 125-acre parcel owned by Bill and Nancy Yates. Bill Yates remembers 60 years ago when American chestnuts lined the road near his home before the tree was all but wiped out on the Eastern seaboard. American Chestnut Foundation officials hope to use the tree as a way to bring the tree back to New Hampshire.

Leila Pinchot, the foundation's New England science coordinator, pollinated the 40-foot tree Monday using pollen from a Tennessee chestnut that has developed resistance to the blight.

The Asian blight, which first started infecting American chestnuts around 1904 in New York City, is a fungus that enters wounds in trees and grows in and under the bark until it has grown through the trunk, according to the foundation.

Scientists have crossed the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to the fungus, with the American chestnut to produce blight-resistant trees. The process is a slow, but may eventually make chestnut a common species again, Pinchot said.

Pinchot put 80 small bags around blossoms on the Yates' tree 10 days ago. After pollinating the blossoms Monday, she retied the bags to prevent airborne pollen from fertilizing or blocking the fertilization of the blight-resistant pollen.

Sometime this fall, the tree should produce chestnuts that will be collected and planted in a Vermont orchard where they will be closely monitored, Pinchot said.

The foundation said eight trees have been pollinated this way and their nuts harvested over the past year. The goal is to cross-pollinate 20 trees in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Pinchot said the foundation also has been working with the state to plant the blight-resistant trees in state forests.

The foundation has just recently started a chapter in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Yates contacted the foundation after seeing an ad in a magazine.

"They were very interested because they said it was a pure American chestnut," Yates said.

Don Black, coordinator for forest resources for the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said chestnuts once were one of the most valuable trees in the United States.

"They were good for firewood, furniture and houses because they don't rot, and they have an edible nut," he added. "It's a beautiful wood."

If the cross-pollination program works, the state will have chestnuts again, said Black.

"People have been waiting for something like this for a long time," he said.

Past efforts have not succeeded. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station launched vigorous programs soon after the blight was discovered. But the program failed to produce trees with strong resistance to blight that also retained the desirable traits of the American chestnut. The U.S. program was discontinued in 1960, according to the foundation.

The foundation has worked with the Connecticut agency, whose program continued.

Blight-resistant trees have been planted in orchards in Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts, Pinchot said.

"In the next couple of years we should have resistant nuts in New Hampshire," Pinchot said. "There are chestnut roads everywhere (in New England), and it shows how big a part of the landscape it was. It can be again."