Will the Chestnut Tree Make a Comeback?

Planting chestnut trees in the Wayne National Forest in OhioTrying to help the tree make a comeback, these guys are planting chestnut trees in the Wayne National Forest in Ohio. Image: Wayne National Forest

Biologists and tree aficionados have been working to restore the once-great chestnut tree to the American landscape. Will it work?

The American chestnut was once one of North America’s most magnificent trees, a big and supremely useful shade tree that provided lumber for America’s early growth and inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other poets to, well, wax poetic.

For example, this horse chestnut tree was planted by George Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. The photo was taken in 1925.

George Washington chestnut tree

Then disaster struck: A horrific blight wiped out the chestnut, laying waste to forests, public parks, and backyards. By 1950, almost none remained.

But tree-lovers refused to accept defeat. In 1983 a group of plant scientists formed The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) and began the search for a blight-resistant solution. Now, after 30 years of breeding and cross-breeding experimentation — and with the help of some 6,000 organization members — TACF believes it has developed a replacement.

Dubbed “Restoration Chestnut 1.0,” the new variety is proving to be blight-resistant and plans are under way to plant millions of 1.0 seedlings in 19 states. However, the new tree is still being tested and Chestnut 1.0 isn’t yet available to the public. Select members of TACF recently received limited access to potentially blight-resistant chestnut seeds.

Desipte the blight, the American chestnut isn’t fully extinct; they can still be found in wood lots and at random locations. You can still try to grow them, but few will reach maturity before they succumb to blight infection. Still, they’re better than some disastrous trees you shouldn’t plant in your yard.

If you find one, a live chestnut may provide valuable information that can aid the restoration process. Contact your local TACF chapter for guidelines on identifying the tree and pinpointing its location. If the tree truly is an American chestnut, TACF may want to use it in their controlled breeding program, and you’ll have the satisfaction of helping the effort.