MASTER GARDENER: American chestnut tree could make comeback

Jeff Young, a volunteer with the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation, stands next to Sam Henry, a 7 1/2-foot tall tree in Benton County. (Courtesy photo)

Jeff Young, a volunteer with the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation, stands next to Sam Henry, a 7 1/2-foot tall tree in Benton County. (Courtesy photo)

The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, is a large, rapidly growing deciduous tree of the beech family and native to eastern North America.

Starting in 1904, we recognized our most stately native tree was dying. The chestnut blight, a fungal disease, killed up to 400 million trees.

The mighty chestnut was vital to the Appalachian Mountains and those who lived in its range. The wood from the tree was fairly light but very strong and easy to work with. It was used to make furniture, shingles, siding and fence posts. Telephone poles were also made from this wood. The tannic acid in the wood kept it from rotting for a long time.

The fruit was an important food source for people as well as livestock and wildlife. In the fall, nuts were gathered by the wagonload and taken into towns and shipped by train to major markets in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Scientists, with the help of such schools as the University of Tennessee, Virginia Tech and the University of New Hampshire, have been studying the tree’s demise for more than a hundred years and, with help from the USDA, are confident they have the answers to bring this tree back to life.

Several organizations are attempting to breed blight-resistant chestnut trees. One of these is the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation, which breeds surviving all-American chestnuts, which have shown native resistance to blight.

Bob Simpson, a Tippah County grower, is a member of this foundation and has 45 chestnut trees. He would like to locate existing chestnut trees so they can be pollinated and brought back to the area.

The American Chestnut Foundation is also backcrossing blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees with American chestnuts, with 98 percent of the trees’ DNA coming from the American chestnut and 2 percent coming from the Chinese trees.

Plans are currently underway for four chestnut trees to be planted at Tupelo’s Music Bend Nature Trail in a project spearheaded by John Kushla of the Mississippi State University Research and Extension Service. North Mississippi was once home to the awesome tree. Wouldn’t it be nice to bring it back to the area?

Mary Nell Gardner, a Master Gardener, is a trained volunteer of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. For gardening questions, call the Help Center at (662) 620-8280 in Lee County or (866) 920-4678 outside Lee County and leave a message.