American Chestnut trees were once a common find in Maine and other areas of the eastern United States.
Now the hard wood is considered functionally extinct.
As Joy Hollowell reports, Maine is a breeding ground for national efforts to restore one of America’s most iconic trees.
“The American Chestnut was probably the most common hardwood tree in the Appalachian forest when the white settlers came to the United States,” explains Al Faust, president of the Maine chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. “Many people feel that the nut production was what helped many people survive those first winters because the American Chestnut is a high protein food for both humans and wildlife.”
By 1950 though, the tree was barely in existence due to a fast-moving Asian fungus. Now, the towering timber is getting a rebirth of sorts, thanks to the American Chestnut Foundation. Maine is one of 16 chapters around the U.S.
“Maine was thought to be outside the normal growing area for years,” says Faust, “until we started looking around and found many surviving Americans that were 80, 90 years old.”
Including one in the western Maine town of Lovell. It is the tallest known Chestnut tree in North America and was discovered just two years ago.
“Maine has some of the tallest trees that have survived, we think because Maine is colder than the rest of the chestnut climate and that the cold slows the blight process down significantly,” says Faust.
A seed orchard in Stetson is among a handful in Maine being used as a testing ground for growing a resistant strain of the American Chestnut. They started planting trees here in 2013. Amanda Barbiere is a University of Maine student interning with the American Chestnut Foundation.
“The most surprising to me was just how quickly they have grown these past few years. And we’ve also had a pretty good survival rate as well.”
“Our seeds, the 6th generation, are believed to be resistant enough to survive with the blight.”
There are six thousand trees in Stetson, all conventionally pollinated with genes from the Chinese Chestnut, which is grown in Virginia. They will soon be inoculated and in the next decade, thinned down to 40 of the strongest survivors.
“What we’re doing is speeding up nature’s process,” says Faust. “We’re restoring a tree that should be here that an invasive species took out. And we may not live long enough to see the end result of it, but we know that the end result is going to be a success in getting these trees back into the environment.”
Faust says a huge majority of the restoration ground work is done by volunteers.
If you’d like to help, log onto https://www.acf.org/ and search for the Maine chapter.
Barbieri is also working with scientists at UMaine on seedlings in a greenhouse. Their process is similar to what’s going on at the seed orchards, with the goal of eventually being able to isolate surviving species earlier in their growing period.
Other seed orchards include Hartland, Winthrop, Searsport, Hope and Phippsburg.
Chestnut trees are a hardwood, known for their high tannin levels. At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees could be found in the eastern part of the U.S. They were known to reach heights of more than 100 feet and 10 feet in diameter.
According to Faust, many homes built in the 50s have chestnut trim, primarily because there was so much of the timber available after it fell to the ground due to the blight.
For the first time ever, the national convention of the American Chestnut Foundation will be held in Maine. It takes place this October in South Portland.