Working to save the American chestnut
The loss of the American chestnut (Castenea dentata) to the chestnut blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) is one of the worst environmental disasters of the past century. The blight was discovered in New York in 1904, and over the next 50 years it wiped out billions of American chestnut trees from Maine to Georgia.
The towering trees comprised a significant portion of the Appalachian forests. The delicious nuts were an important cash crop for many rural families in Appalachia, who shipped the crop to the cities by the trainload. The logs were often used for buildings, furniture, and fences.
The Catawba Sustainability Center is almost at the center of the tree’s natural range. With support from the Virginia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, a group of Catawba community volunteers have made a step toward restoring chestnut trees to the forests. The group cleared a small orchard space on a spur ridge overlooking the Catawba Sustainability Center and planted 54 pure American chestnut seeds.
Seventh grade students from North Cross School in Roanoke visited the farm on May 2 to hear about the chestnut history and help plant the last few seeds. These trees will probably not have resistance to the fungus, but they will live long enough to flower and be hand-pollinated with pollen from resistant strains.
Later in the summer surviving, native “mother” trees in the Catawba Valley will be pollinated with pollen from resistant strains of trees. The progeny of these trees and their pollen will be used to help produce more resistant trees at Catawba Sustainability Center and, in the future, in valuable forests elsewhere.
For more information on the project at Catawba Sustainabilty Center or to volunteer contact Kay Dunkley at 540-767-6103 or Carl Absher at 540-553-1916.