Once revered for its sheer size and beauty, incredibly durable wood, delicious and nutritious nut-meat, and fast growth, the American Chestnut Tree is an historic icon. It is interwoven with our culture and was a cornerstone of the Appalachian economy for generations. Sadly, a fungal blight simply decimated the total tree population in the beginning half of the last century rendering it functionally extinct. Now, the very existence of this mighty tree now hangs by a thread. Luckily, however, that thread is being held by a small army of men and women working doggedly to bolster the tree’s resistance to the blight with the intention to restore the species to its former glory.
The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), as their website says, “is committed to restoring the American chestnut tree to our eastern woodlands to benefit our environment, our wildlife, and our society. Unlike other environmental organizations, TACF’s mission is not about preventing environmental loss or preserving what we already have. The concept of our mission is much bolder and more powerful. It’s about the restoration of an entire ecosystem and making our world a much better place than we found it.”
On December 15th, 2020, Homeplace officially became a part of the American Chestnut Foundation’s national effort to restore the American Chestnut Tree! Board President Billy Joe Fudge and Volunteer Extraordinaire Mr. Hugh Leachman planted 13 baby chestnut trees along the path of the agrarian Hiking Trail. The infant trees are all essentially siblings of one another from "father" trees in Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky and with the "mother" tree being Kentucky's largest historic Chestnut tree, Columbia's very own Charles England tree! These little guys are planted along the AgrarianTrail and can be viewed by visitors anytime. Soon, they will be joined by 5 more baby trees and we hope for many more in the near future.
Volunteers from TACF are working hard to breed blight-resistant trees through careful selective breeding. This requires multiple germplasm conservation orchards, which are essentially little genetic banks, to slowly but surely raise and breed resistant trees with the eventual goal of re-propagating the entire species! This is made possible in part by the fast growth cycle of young chestnuts which can begin to bear seeds in as little as 5 years. Carefully hand-pollinated seeds are planted and then the saplings are cataloged and replanted in a conservation orchard to mature and reproduce again.
Each tree is carefully watched and it’s blight resistance recorded. The plan is to have several genetic lineages with enough immunity to be able to survive in the wild. The early results are promising and with progress like this, perhaps it will be a mere generation before we will be roasting American chestnuts by an open fire once more in America!