3.5 Billion Trees Missing
Americans have a particularly sad history when it comes to forests. From the logging of two-thousand-year-old Redwoods, to the clear cutting of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, we seem to have a knack for destroying some of the richest ecosystems on the planet without blinking an eye. Yet, it is the tragic story of the American Chestnut that horrifies as well as inspires.
There are sights that we will never see again. This is obvious. We will never again see the unscarred wide open spaces of the pre-Manifest Destiny West, nor the million strong herds of buffalo that accompanied it. Some have argued, with a variety of success, that we will never again see true wildness, but instead a diminished and abstracted form in the form of state parks and post cards. The story of the American Chestnut is different; there is hope.
In 1904 a single American Chestnut tree in the Bronx Zoo in New York City was found with a strange fungus growing on it. Within 20 years, 3.5 billion trees had succumbed to the fungus. By some accounts, more than a quarter of all trees in forests that streched from Maine to Georgia disappeared. The staggering and unprecedented die-off was caused by the unintended arrival of the Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica, formerly Endothia parasitica) now commonly called chestnut blight. This fungus appeared in the U.S. due to the importation of blight-resistant Chinese Chestnuts (sadly, now the most populous species of chestnut in the U.S.).
Today, dendrologists throughout the U.S. are trying to do something unprecedented in the world of forestry; namely, to bring the American Chestnut back to life. The Chinese Chestnut, despite being the original vector of contamination, holds the key to the success of the American Chestnut in it’s inherent resistance to the Asian bark fungus. By hybridizing the Chinese and American varietals of Chestnuts there is hope that a tree closely resembling (though genetically divergent) to the American Chestnut of yore might once again thrive. The hybridized varietal of the American Chestnut has been championed by The American Chestnut Foundation that has been developing the strain for the past 30 years, and they claim that their hybrid contains 94% of the genes of the original American Chestnut.
While the prospect of seeing the American Chestnut thrive in North American forests is exciting, it is equally daunting. Within just a few decades the loss of nearly 3.5 billion trees caused untold ecological disruption. Yet, it seems our forests remained resilient. Has the niche of the once majestic American Chestnut been filled by rapid growing colonizers? If so, what protocol is there for reintroducing a species that has been gone for several decades on this scale? Numerous questions need to be answered before we begin tinkering, once again, with the ecology of our nation’s forests.
It should be noted, however, that the ACF are not planning on planting billions of American Chestnuts any time soon. For the next few years the production of saplings will remain in the thousands, and most of those will remain in tightly controlled test plots. However, the ACF has offered the opportunity for their members to purchase their hybridized Amercian Chestnut seeds and plant them at home (although at this time they have sold out of seeds for distribution).
There is one more reason to be excited about the American Chestnut returning to our forests: it is an excellent way of sequestering carbon, thereby mitigating climate change. The astonishingly fast growth rate of the American Chestnut means that it is voracious in its consumption of carbon dioxide, but also, as it is a hardwood, it has anti-rotting properties thereby ensuring that the carbon dioxide can be stored for many years to come.
Only time will tell whether or not the new hybridized American Chestnut will be able to reclaim it’s rightful place in the forest, but, in the mean time, we must strive to ensure that we will be the last generation to live without the iconic American tree that once filled the forests of the east coast 3.5 billion strong.
In the end, perhaps it is fitting that the American Chestnut, like America itself, might one day be saved by a heterogeneity of genes and a mixing and blending of cultures and characteristics and peoples and languages and ideas that come together to produce a resilience and a vigor that is uniquely American.
Photos from the Library of Congress