Mountain State Chestnuts had it's start in 1986. It was the spring semester at West Virginia University and I was finishing up some classes before starting Dental school in August. I was studying at the Evansdale Library and needed a break. I grabbed a copy of 'National Wildlife' from the magazine rack.
About Mountain State Chestnuts
American chestnut trees in the Great Smoky Mountains in the days before Chestnut Blight.
An article entitled 'Is this the Chestnut's Last Stand?' caught my eye. To this day I still don't know why that article caught my attention, but it had an impact that has lasted for 29 years.
The article told the story of the American chestnut tree. It was a story I was not familiar with. At one time the American chestnut tree was the most common tree in the Appalachian ecosystem. It made up 25% of all the standing timber in an area from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi River. It was the dominant tree in the Appalachian ecosystem. The tree was fast growing, reaching a mature height of 70 - 100 feet and diameters of 3 - 4 feet. Larger
American chestnut sprouting from the base of an old stump in Barbour County, WV.
specimans were known to exist. Trees up to 120 feet in height, and 8 - 10 feet in diameter were not unheard of, earning the tree the nickname, 'Redwood of the East'. The wood is lightweight and easily worked. It is rot resistant and was used for all outdoor purposes such as cabins, barns, fence posts, telegraph poles, etc.. The wood also has a beautiful finish and was used for furniture, flooring, paneling and instruments.
It blooms later than most trees saving it from most frost damage, therefore it provided a
bountiful crop of nuts every year. Most nut trees and oaks provide good crops every 3 out of 5 years. The chestnuts differ from most nuts in that they are high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. The American chestnut has the smallest chestnuts, but are considered the sweetest. It was known as a keystone species because so many animals depended on the nuts. Many Appalachian families also depended on the nuts. The nuts were gathered and sent by train to the large cities where they were sold by street vendors as hot roasted chestnuts. Farmers would also turn their hogs into the woods in the fall to fatten up on chestnuts. This bounty of nuts and timber was soon to end in the early 1900's.
In 1904 a foreign fungus was found to be killing the American chestnut trees in the Bronx parks. This fungus, Cryphonectria parisitica, came to be known as chestnut blight. This fungus is thought to have been accidentally imported on chestnut trees imported from Japan, and is the main reason we have plant quarantine laws today. Within 50 years, chestnut blight killed 99% of all the American chestnut trees.
An estimated 3.5 billion trees were killed. This is still believed to be one of the worst ecological disasters in recorded history. There is no other example of a pathogen that so quickly and efficiently eliminated a single species from it's position at the top of the ecosystem. Early plant breeders knew that the American and Oriental species could be crossed to create hybrids. The initial hope was that a hybrid could be created that would be resistant to chestnut blight yet have all the desirable traits of the American tree.
Chestnut blight canker growing on hybrid American chestnut tree.
Two of the main breeding programs were at the Connecticult Agriculture Experiment Station under the direction of Dr. Arthur Graves, and the USDA program at Beltsville, MD. Thousands of hybrid trees were produced over a roughly 30 year period. None of these trees had the hoped for timber form of the American tree and the blight resistance of the Japanese and Chinese chestnuts. By 1960 most research and breeding programs ended as it was concluded that the American chestnut could not be saved.
In the early 1980's prominent geneticist Dr. Charles Burnham proposed a new approach to breeding a blight resistant American chestnut tree. He identified mistakes that were made in the original programs, such as breeding the initial hybrid trees back to the Oriental trees which resulted in the offspring being 75% Chinese and Japanese. He proposed a 'backcross' breeding program in which the hybrid offspring were bred back to the American parents until a generation is reached in which the trees are now 94% American. These trees would be virtually indistinguishable from the pure species. The whole process is a bit more complicated that I've described here, but I encourage people to visit the website of the American Chestnut Foundation, www.acf.org, to see the great work this organization is doing to bring back this important and majestic tree.
Mountain State Chestnuts
American chestnut from Barbour County, WV being kept alive with hypovirulent, or weakened strains of blight.
As I mentioned earlier, it was the story of the American chestnut tree that got me started with a 29 year obsession with breeding and growing American chestnut trees and American hybrids. I have multiple goals I have tried to achieve over the years.
1. I have tried to recover as much of the genetic diversity in the American chestnut by using pollen and nuts from Americans I could locate in my
area of northcentral WV. I have tried to use the backcross breeding
method proposed by Dr. Charles Burnham and utilized by the American
2. I have tried to take a 'shortcut' however, in achieving blight resistance
in my hybrids. I have tried to locate and use some Americans with
low levels of resistance in the hopes that those low levels, when
combined with the resistance in the Chinese and Japanese trees would
create trees with adequate levels of field resistance to blight.
3. While keeping in mind that these trees are ideal for timber, wildlife and
the environment. I want trees that can be 'enjoyed'. I envision trees
that will be planted in yards and be climbed by children, anchor tree
houses and hammocks, tire swings from the branches, provide shade
on hot days, and provide nuts for generations to come.
Having fun in one of my American hybrids.