American chestnut tree

American Chestnut Foundation Collaborates With Davey to Breed Blight-Resistant Trees

August 27, 2013
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For more than 100 years, American chestnut trees have suffered chestnut blight, an invasive disease that first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1900s. In fact, within the first 40 years of the 20th century, 3.5 billion American chestnuts had perished in the Appalachian hills and highlights, a region that stretches from Maine all the way to Georgia.

As the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation describes it, the excessive American chestnut tree loss mirrors the deaths Native American tribes had previously suffered after exposure to smallpox. The chestnut blight disease has tremendously reduced the American chestnut population, from the tallest trees in the Eastern U.S. hardwood forests to the small understory trees that blight continues to attack today.

Fortunately, several entities have initiated projects and studies to prevent chestnut blight from further reducing the American chestnut population. The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), for example, has made an effort to reverse the trend by breeding healthy, blight-resistant American chestnut trees. The project, however, first required a bit of additional expertise and assistance.

After ACF representatives met Davey's Mid-Atlantic Operations Manager Chris Klimas and Recruiter/Trainer Steve Nagy at the Maryland Master Gardeners conference, Davey was happy to help them out. "Getting involved with this organization is important," Klimas says. "What they are doing is so unique."

saving American chestnut trees
Davey's Chris Klimas covers female flowers on an American chestnut tree in support of the American Chestnut Foundation's process to breed blight-resistant trees. Bagging female flowers on American chestnut trees prevents cross pollination with diseased trees' DNA.

Because chestnut blight entered the U.S. as one of the first evasive plant diseases, a bit of American heritage has suffered as a result. "ACF is trying to preserve this special species of tree," Klimas explains.

Klimas and Nagy, along with Mario Cipriano, district manager of Davey's Northern Virginia residential office, have begun a five- to six-year process to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts. The process begins by removing the male flowers and bagging the female flowers to protect them from being inadvertently pollinated with diseased trees' DNA.

Then, Davey helps uncover the flowers and pollinate half of the females with one type of a desirable male flower and the other half with different flowers. Finally, the team determines controls by marking bags with different colors and then observing which trees will succeed. Davey has also provided and handled an aerial truck to check tree canopies for pollination.

"It's a major process of elimination," Klimas explains. The team will return next month to check the American chestnuts for tree nuts. Davey will harvest any nuts the trees produce and share them with the ACF, which will then plant them in Maryland.

Thanks to the efforts of many, American chestnut trees may look forward to a brighter future in the U.S. for the next 100 years.

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