SNYDER: Scientists reviving growth of American chestnuts


My 97-year-old grandfather often tells me a tale of a tree.

The American chestnut tree could be making a comeback, thanks to a group of scientists and volunteers.

It was a chestnut tree, he claims, that soared high above his boyhood farm. The trunk was so large, the tale goes, that it took a day and a half to walk around it.

Was it hyperbole? A tall tale between a grandpa and his grandson? Or was there a glimmer of truth to the story?

In my younger days, I was certain it was just my grandfather’s way of teaching me about the good ol’ days – kind of like walking to and from school through eight feet of snow, uphill both ways. But the older I get, the wiser I become.

These days I know a heck of a lot more about the great American chestnut tree. And the more I know about this magnificent species of tree, the more I realize my grandpa’s story may not be all that far-fetched. In his day, there were some big trees.

The American chestnut is an invisible piece of the nation’s history. Two centuries ago, the massive trees dominated the landscape of the Eastern seaboard. Reaching heights of 100 feet, they were the king of the forest.

But 1904 marked the beginning of the end for the American chestnut. That’s when a fungus carried here from Asia entered American forests. Over the next half century, the ensuing blight killed billions of chestnut trees. Today, just a few highly protected groves of the majestic trees still stand. They’re under constant attack from the invasive fungus.

There is good news, however. Scientists are closer than ever to permanently introducing a strain of chestnut trees that is tolerant of the killer fungus. Their goal is to create a tree that looks like an American chestnut, but has the disease tolerance of a Chinese chestnut.

How they are accomplishing their goal is an interesting, and oddly simple, scientific process. The American Chestnut Foundation and scientists from a variety of organizations across the country have taken the idea of “survival of the fittest” to an extreme.

For more than 30 years, these folks have been crossbreeding Chinese and American chestnuts. It’s a painfully slow process. Once the hybrid seeds are planted, the scientists must wait to see which trees are the strongest and, most important, show the best resistance to the deadly fungus. The trees with the best traits are then bred to create, what scientists hope, is an even stronger strain. The trees that don’t make the grade are destroyed.

Right now, the breeding program is working on its seventh generation of trees. With each generation stronger than the last, the scientists are closer than ever to what they believe will be a fully resistant American chestnut tree. When these folks reach their goal (they think it will be in less than five years), they’ll be able to bring back a great slice of American history.

I may never get to tell my grandson about taking a day and a half to walk around one of these beastly trees. But thanks to the hard work of a group of volunteers and scientists, my grandson may very well get to see Penn’s woods once again filled with towering chestnut trees.

That’ll be another tale worth telling.

— Andy Snyder writes about outdoors for The York Dispatch. You can reach him at sports@yorkdispatch.com