American chestnut trees once made up a quarter of eastern U.S. forests, with four billion of them stretching from Maine to Florida. Virtually all these chestnuts were killed within 50 years by a fungus introduced to the U.S. in 1904. But wildlife biologist Nathan Klaus of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources recently discovered half a dozen American chestnuts near President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Little White House in the southern end of the Appalachians, with the largest some 40 feet tall. “You occasionally find a single American chestnut in the wild, but such a large group of them is unprecedented,” Klaus says. He notes that the chestnut-killing fungus may not have thrived on the dry, rocky mountaintop where this stand dwells. The American Chestnut Foundation announced May 19 it would breed the trees with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts in the hopes of eventually developing a hardier, mostly American hybrid.
Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents.