In the early 1900s, two men stand amid five American chestnut trees near Townsend, Tenn. Once called "the Redwoods of the East", chestnuts made up 25 percent of Northeastern American forests. (from Sowing The Seeds For A Great American Chestnut Comeback )
Here’s some history on the American Chestnut from http://forestry.about.com/cs/treeid/a/achestnut.htm before the current article –
Death of the American Chestnut
American chestnut was once the most important tree of the Eastern North American hardwood forest. One fourth of this forest was composed of native chestnut. According to a historical publication "many of the dry ridge tops of the central Appalachians were so thoroughly crowded with chestnut that, in early summer, when their canopies were filled with creamy-white flowers, the mountains appeared snow-capped."
The Castanea dentata nut was a central part of eastern rural economies. Communities enjoyed eating chestnuts and their livestock was fattened by the nut. And what wasn't consumed was sold. Chestnut was an important cash crop for many Appalachian families. Holiday nuts were railed to New York and Philadelphia and other big cities where street vendors sold them fresh-roasted.
American Chestnut was a major lumber producer. According to The American Chestnut Foundation "It grew straight and often branch-free for fifty feet. Loggers tell of loading entire railroad cars with boards cut from just one tree. Straight-grained, lighter in weight than oak and more easily worked, chestnut was as rot resistant as redwood. It was used for virtually everything - telegraph poles, railroad ties, shingles, paneling, fine furniture, musical instruments, even pulp and plywood."
A chestnut disease was first introduced to North America from an exported tree to New York City in 1904.
The Range of the American Chestnut Tree
The venerable tree, hit hard by blight, is getting some help from a breeding program.
Giants once ruled the woodlands of this continent. American chestnuts, once the dominant species here, are largely gone now except for a few remnant trees, and they are a pale shadow of their former glory.
Everyone knows what happened. The blight hit and the beautiful monsters that once dominated the skyline became rotted, leaving only a few sickly trees that made a few nuts.
But the American chestnut is on the way back, with a hearty breeding program that crosses and recrosses species of Chinese and American chestnuts as well as others — all from a single pair of breeding American trees on the edge of the Smokies, said Paul Sisco of the American Chestnut Foundation.
Eventually, these trees will have all but resistance to blight bredout of them, said Sisco, leaving a nearly pure American chestnut.
The breeding program is further along in the woodlands of Virginia than they are in North Carolina, said Sisco.
“Here we will start our breeding program for the most resistant trees this year,” he said. “These will be the trees that breed the next generation.”
Next year, there will thousands of trees planted on old strip mines in West Virginia, he said. These trees will the foundation of what could become a new generation of giants, Sisco said. Whether these will become the tall, straight monsters of centuries gone by will only be told by the passage of time.
It is one of the things that makes the Cataloochee Guest Ranch one of the most scenic in region. This is a place of towering trees, set on a grand scale with thousands of acres of pasture and hardwoods.
Except for the chestnuts. Right now, the tallest trees only reach about 20 feet tall. They quickly succumb to blight. There were about 300 saplings here a few years ago. Now there are mostly stumps.
This is what the horror of blight becomes.
Judy Coker watched the stately older trees die when she was a child more than 80 years ago. All except for a few stumps sprouted new trees from vigorous root stock and those only lived long enough to produce a few seeds.
But it was enough.
Judy Sutton, 53, is Coker’s daughter and she has spent years working the orchard and running the guest ranch.
Judy B, as she is known, has taken the reins from her mom now. She knows the trees almost by name and recognizes each individual quirk.
Judy B has a good idea which trees are likely to make it. Subtle differences in the cankers that blister the trunks will make all the difference in the world a few generations down the road.
Still, all in all, the pure American trees are resilient. They have survived for millions of years and might yet beat the blight were it not for phytophthora, a form of root rot that kills them from the ground down.
Phytophthora is sensitive to cold at higher elevations, above the frost line, but has wiped out American chestnuts in the lowlands of the South.