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November 23, 2007

The Kind Of Environmentalism I Like

Ever since it's demise to an imported fungal blight nearly a century ago, breeders have been trying to revive the majestic American Chestnut.

Reaching just around 100 feet tall but quite often more than ten feet in diameter, the American Chestnut was among the grandest and most useful trees known to Eastern North America.

The chestnuts provided forage to wild animals and livestock, and food for people. The timber was straight, handsome, and rot-resistant and used for both outdoor structures and fine furniture.

A small grove could be a real wealth producer for a poor Appalachian family. But when the blight came, all the surviving trees that could be reached were harvested as soon as possible. The landscape of the Eastern U.S. was changed for the worst, seemingly forever.

A few surviving sprouts persisted and still managed to produce flowers and nuts, which were used for breeding stock by selfless people who will never live long enough to see the results of their work, if any.

The American Chestnut Foundation began a tree-breeding campaign in the late 1980s in a quest for trees that could ward off the fungus.

First, the towering American species with its picturesque form was crossed with its blight-resistant but squat Chinese counterpart. The resulting trees were a 50-50 mix of American and Chinese chestnut genetics.

Those trees are then selectively bred with surviving American chestnuts in a process called "backcrossing." The nuts produced by each successive backcross are planted and eventually pollinated with pure American chestnut trees, making each generation slightly more American.

Within the next few years these (hopefully) resistant hybrids will be planted out by the US Forest Service.

Cross your fingers.

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posted by Laura. at 11:34 AM

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