A new chance for chestnut trees

Floorboards and fence posts, cradles and coffins, barns and bureaus. American chestnut wood for centuries was preferred for these and many other uses. The trees long were prized not only for their wood, which is extremely durable and rot resistant, but also for the beauty of their snowy white springtime floral displays and for the dense and meaty nuts that provided food for both animals and people each fall. 

American chestnuts were nicknamed the redwoods of the East because their trunks often grew to immense diameters and to towering heights. There are vintage photographs showing five people standing shoulder to shoulder against a chestnut without hiding the tree’s trunk. 

Chestnuts once comprised an estimated quarter of all the trees growing from Maine to Georgia and west to the Ohio valley. Along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, they were even more abundant — making up about seven out of every 10 trees. The chestnut dominated eastern forests from the days when the land was the domain of native tribes until the early automobile age, but the mighty tree was wiped out by a blight in the early years of the 20th century. 

So, it is exciting that two rare chestnut trees discovered near the Montville-Waterford border on property owned by Rob and Teresa Schacht may play a role in helping revive the once culturally and economically important tree. In July, the Connecticut Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, teamed with representatives of Eversource and Distinctive Tree Care LLC of South Windsor, brought a bucket truck to the Schachts’ Quaker Hill property. There, they wrapped protective bags around flowers on one tree as part of a manual pollination project focused on making American chestnuts resistant to the blight introduced to the U.S. by Asian chestnuts. 

The efforts to foster blight resistance follow many years of failed attempts to contain the fungus. After the blight was first detected in 1904 in trees at the Bronx Zoo, federal and state governments undertook huge efforts to control the disease. In Pennsylvania, for example, a swath of forest several miles wide was removed. These efforts did not stop the blight from spreading, however. 

Now, even more than a century later, the remaining American chestnut trees, including some reduced to little more than stumps, continue to try to reproduce. Saplings almost never survive long enough or grow tall enough to flower, however. The American Chestnut Foundation focuses its efforts on those few trees, such as those on the Schachts’ property, that are flowering despite the odds. 

The manual pollination work is labor intensive and multi-faceted. Not only is it extremely rare to find viable trees, but the process also entails numerous steps and unforeseen hazards. The bucket truck, for example, got stuck and suffered a flat tire on one recent trek at the Schacht property. 

Despite this, the potential of this project is more than worth the effort. We thank the Schachts, the foundation, Eversource and Distinctive Tree Care for their work. If successful, perhaps future generations can again enjoy the chestnut’s versatility and great beauty. Perhaps, too, some future poet can be inspired by the tree, as was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1842 when he so eloquently and enduringly wrote about the village blacksmith working under the iconic spreading chestnut tree. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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