Last August, I told you about efforts now underway to restore the majestic American Chestnut. Castanea dentate once dominated the forests in the eastern part of the country, but in the early 20th century, chestnut blight destroyed nearly all of them.
After finding a few survivors, the American Chestnut Foundation began crossing those trees with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts and growing them on special plantations, with the objective of creating a blight-resistant American tree. There are 28 such plantations in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island has four.
I visited the South Kingstown RI plantation recently to see how the seedlings had fared through the winter. Last year, volunteers armed with pollen from Virginia pollinated wild American Chestnuts in RI, bagged the flowers to prevent contamination from other pollen, and then over-wintered the nuts in a refrigerator. These were planted in April and when I visited, volunteers were checking to see which ones had germinated. The germination rate here is an astounding 90%, which is very good news! This is most likely due in no small part to the solar – powered drip irrigation system, which is set to water the seedlings every second day – unless the rain sensor shuts it down.
The seedlings are caged to protect them from hungry critters, and grown here for 5 years before they are inoculated with chestnut blight. This will determine which hybrids are most resistant, and those in turn will be used to breed even more resistant trees.
I look forward to a day when American Chestnuts are reintroduced to the ecosystem, and I will definitely keep you posted on this interesting and very worthwhile project.