Chestnut Trees Return

The imposing 100-foot American chestnut tree that once dominated forests in the eastern U.S. may soon return, fortified by a new resistance to an Asian fungus. That blight essentially wiped out the tree during the past century, altering entire forest ecosystems. Scientists are releasing a sixth-generation hybrid this year for planting in several locations, confident that it will show the resistance of its hardy Chinese cousin.

The hybridization began decades ago, when breeders crossed the American and Chinese chestnuts to obtain the resistance genes. But because the American variety grows up to 50 feet taller and lacks lower branches, the researchers have had to backcross repeatedly to recapture those traits. The sixth generation should now have about 94 percent American character and “should have high resistance to the blight,” says Sara Fitzsimmons, a research technologist at Pennsylvania State University’s School of Forest Resources who works on the project. She won’t rest assured, however, until the trees grow on national forestland for 10 years or so. Meanwhile scientists will continue to breed seedlings optimized for the sharply different local conditions from Maine to Georgia.

If the sixth generation shows the required resistance, Fitzsimmons foresees chestnut trees being available in garden centers in about 25 years. And with oaks in decline because of gypsy moth infestation, the reemergence of hardy chestnuts would provide prodigious quantities of nuts for animals and valuable biodiversity.