Last weekend, I finally had a chance to visit a new and very exciting project. The University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners are managing an American Chestnut tree research orchard. This is the fourth such orchard in the state, part of the American Chestnut Foundation’s restoration project.
The sad story – and cautionary tale – of the demise of Castanea dentata began in 1904, with the introduction of blight from China. By 1940, 4 billion – yes, billion! – trees had been wiped out throughout eastern North America, leaving only scattered sprouts and a very few mature trees. American Chestnut trees were tremendously important to the ecosystem because of their dependable annual production of nutritious nuts and their valuable timber. The disappearance of the trees was a source of considerable hardship to the human and animal populations that depended on them.
In research plantations throughout the trees’ original range, the American Chestnut Foundation is developing blight-resistant seedlings.
By backcrossing and incrossing American Chestnuts and blight- resistant Chinese chestnuts, and inoculating seedlings with blight and selecting the hardiest survivors, the Foundation hopes to eventually come up with a hybrid with the resistance of the Chinese and the stature of the American.
The URI Master Gardener-managed orchard is located on one acre of land, provided by the South Kingstown Land Trust. In addition to generating plenty of local interest, the project has also attracted some very important donations: a water tank, a solar-powered drip watering system (with a rain sensor!) and a fence to keep out the deer. Someone won a lawn tractor and donated that, too.
The nuts and seedlings are planted 7 feet apart. Eventually there will be 260 of them in the orchard. The nuts are protected with plastic cones held closed by clothes pins, so the chestnut-crazy wild turkeys don’t get them.
I love a win-win situation, and this is definitely one of them. The Master Gardeners get to participate in an interesting and worthwhile project. The Land Trust preserves green space in a meaningful way. The community has an opportunity to get involved in an eco-friendly project. Best of all, the trees themselves have a chance to someday grow in our forests once again.