They Might Be Giants Again

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

It would seem Yvonne Federowicz is embarked on a fruitless — some might say nut-less — mission. The mighty American chestnut tree, at least ones bigger than saplings, disappeared more than a century ago. These trees that once dominated the forests of the eastern United States, often lived for more than 100 years and grew as high as 200 feet are functionally extinct.

Much of Federowicz’s focus for the past decade, however, has been working to bring these iconic symbols back, and she isn’t going at it alone. As president of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, she has nearly 400 other members working with her to overcome the devastating blight that has decimated the tree’s population.

“You can find American chestnuts in our woods but they only live for a few years,” the North Providence resident said. “Their stems grow for a few years before the blight hits. They’re lucky if they get to 15 to 20 feet. A lot only make it to be a foot high.”

At the end of 19th century, more than a quarter of the trees in East Coast, Midwest and southern forests were American chestnuts. The tree produces a rot-resistant wood and sweet nuts that don’t have to be roasted. It’s the tree mentioned by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “The Village Blacksmith.”

A late-flowering (early summer), reliable and productive tree, unaffected by seasonal frosts, the American chestnut tree was the most important food source for a variety of wildlife. Rural communities depended upon the annual chestnut harvest to feed livestock.

The usefulness of its wood was unparalleled. Chestnut wood is straight-grained, easily worked, lightweight and highly rot-resistant, making it ideal for fence posts, telephone poles, railroad ties and barn beams, as well as for fine furniture and musical instruments. Tannic acid in its bark and wood was used to tan leather.

Since the turn of the 19th century, however, the “Redwoods of the East” have been reeling. Chestnut blight was one of the largest ecological disasters of the 20th century.

The American chestnut was felled by a microscopic fungal spore, first spotted in New York City in 1904 and identified as Endothia parasitica. The fungus traveled to North America stowed away aboard imported Asian trees. Once it gets into a chestnut tree, the pathogenic fungus strangles the tree within a few years.

This blight, however, doesn’t kill young chestnut trees. In the wild, smaller trees still sprout from the roots of the huge trees killed by the fungus decades ago. But when a chestnut reaches a certain height, the blight encircles the trunk, twig or branch under the bark, killing the cambium and cutting off the flow of nutrients. The sprout clumps that survive today are the remnants of the original trees, which could have diameters that reached 9 to 10 feet. Chestunt trees that big today are rare.

 “The fungus gets under the dark at the base of the trunk,” said Federowicz, who works in the library at Brown University. “It kills the thin layer under the bark that transports water from the roots. It doesn’t kill the roots, so some stems grow from the base of the trunk, but there is very little reproduction being done. The species can’t do this forever.”

The American chestnut, once renowned for its height, beauty and impressive canopy, were almost completely wiped out by the 1940s. The spores that kill these trees are still blowing in the wind and living peacefully in oak trees. The species is in crisis.

The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 by a group of plant scientists concerned that the demise of the American chestnut would upend the ecology of the 200 million acres of forests, from Maine to Florida, that housed some 4 billion of these trees.

For the past 28 years, the foundation, which currently has chapters in 16 states, has been working to restore the American chestnut to its native habitat through a sophisticated breeding program.

Federowicz stumbled into this fight 17 years ago, when she went online in hopes of finding out what was killing the hemlock trees outside the window of her Pawtucket apartment. She eventually found out that it was an invasive insect (woolly adelgid) killing her hemlocks. Her Internet search also introduced her to the chestnut tree’s plight.

To combat the blight, the American Chestnut Foundation is breeding disease-resistant chestnut trees. The much-smaller Chinese chestnut is resistant to the blight, so researchers are cross-pollinating American chestnuts with Chinese ones until they have a blight-resistant hybrid that is 15/16ths American and 1/16th Chinese.

The goal is to breed blight resistance from the Chinese chestnut tree into the American chestnut, while maintaining the American chestnut’s characteristics.

Six years after it was founded, the foundation established the Wagner Research Farm, a breeding station in Meadowview, Va., to execute the backcross breeding program developed by Philip Rutter, David French and the late Charles Burnham, three of the organization’s founding scientists.

Today, the Meadowview Research Farm features about 30,000 trees at various stages of breeding, planted on more than 160 acres. This Virginia farm, however, isn’t the foundation’s only location where American and Chinese chestnut research and breeding is being conducted.

The Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter features 29 such orchards, including four in the Ocean State. The orchards in South Kingstown, Westerly, Glocester and Foster each have between 200 and 300 trees, with the exception of Westerly, which has less than 100 chestnut trees.

“We’re trying to create a local American chestnut tree population that takes into account the genetic diversity of this area,” Federowicz said. “Trees don’t have an immune system like ours.”