By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
As a young Boy Scout growing up in Roanoke, Va., in the 1950s, Reginald Rose was always in the woods.
“Every time we went to go camping or hiking, there was always a bountiful supply of wood from old, dead chestnuts,” Rose said. “We didn’t realize why, of course.”
Years later, Rose would come to take great interest in the plight of the chestnut blight of the early 1900s.
Chestnuts were very much a part of the economic world in the Appalachian Mountains, Rose said, a range that runs from New England all the way down to Starkville. The wood was very durable and rot-resistant, so it was used for fencing, barns and pioneer cabins, and the seeds were edible.
“The blight was first observed around 1905 at the New York Botanical Garden,” Rose said. “A groundskeeper realized the trees were dying but they didn’t know why. Eventually, they discovered an airborne pathogen – a fungal disease – was to blame.”
For a long time, he said, the remedy was to cut the trees down before they could get the disease.
“But by that point, it was too late,” Rose said.
According to the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation, the fungus entered the United States accidentally on Asian nursery stock imported to New York around 1900. Spread by wind, rain, birds and other animals, it entered through the tiniest crack or wound in the bark, making sunken cankers which expanded and girdled the stem, killing everything above the canker, usually in one growing season.
Because it had never before been exposed to this fungus, the American chestnut was highly susceptible. By 1940, an estimated 3.5 billion American chestnuts had perished.
Efforts had already begun, though, to crossbreed American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts. But they were never considered hardy enough to warrant widespread planting.
And then in 1989, the American Chestnut Foundation began a new project at its research farm in Meadowview, Va. It “backcrossed” the Chinese-American hybrids with American chestnuts to produce a tree that was more American with each generation but still resistant to blight.
Three years ago, the United States Forest Service began planting the foundation’s “Restoration Chestnuts,” which are 15/16ths American, in national forests in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. The foundation made them available to some of its members in small quantities, which is where Rose, a Lee County Master Gardener, enters the picture.
In September, Rose, a member of the ACF, purchased four backcrossed chestnut seeds for $75 each. Then he contacted John Kushla, a forestry specialist at the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona.
“He called me about a month ago and said he wanted to talk about chestnut trees,” Kushla said. “Last week, he came back with the paperwork.”
The paperwork is actually a contract the R&E Center entered into with the chestnut foundation.
“We had to tell them where we were going to plant them, we had to agree to take pictures every year and annually report the condition of the trees,” Rose said. “This is really a scientific experiment.”
That’s why Rose chose to have the seeds planted in Verona, rather than in his own yard in Tupelo.
“I decided to plant here because it’s an experiment station,” he said. “I felt like this was the best place to put them. There’s plenty of sunshine here and good soil. I don’t think I have enough sun at my house.”
The seeds were supposed to be shipped in late March for planting, but because Verona is so far south, Rose convinced the ACF to send his earlier.
So on a cold, damp Feb. 8 – Mississippi’s Arbor Day – Rose and Kushla planted the four seeds in the Botanical Gardens at the R&E Center.
“This is actually a good day for planting,” said Andy Ezell, head of the Forestry Department at Mississippi State University, who was on hand for the occasion. “If you didn’t have the wind, it would be very pleasant out here. It’s nice and moist.”
Kushla told Rose not to get his hopes too high.
“He said to count on one seed for the birds, one will die and maybe the other two will make it,” Rose said. “But I’m hopeful. Every generation of seeds is a little bit better, a little more resistant to blight.”
Kushla said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some leaves poking through the ground in the next couple of weeks.
“I think this is kind of exciting,” he said. “I went through forestry school, but never got to see an actual chestnut tree. They were already gone. Occasionally we’d see a stump or the occasional sprout.”
At 72, Rose said he knows he won’t be around to see the trees get very big, if they grow at all.
“I’ll never see them to fruition, but maybe my grandchildren will,” he said. “My youngest two grandchildren are 6 and 9. They are the ones who will enjoy seeing these trees.”