American Chestnut Foundation works to preserve species in Connecticut

Waterford — A pair of trees found last year in a wooded field near the Waterford-Montville border could play a role in reviving the American chestnut, a once-dominant species all but wiped out by a blight introduced to the U.S. more than a century ago.

Earlier this month, the Connecticut chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation partnered with Eversource and South Windsor-based Distinctive Tree Care LLC to use a bucket truck to wrap protective bags around the female flowers at the top of a chestnut tree on land owned by Hunts Brook Farm-owners Rob & Teresa Schacht. The bagging helped prepare for a manual pollination with pollen from other pure American chestnuts, including one at the Nehantic State Forest, according to Jack Swatt, president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.

Sue Stotts, an arborist for Eversource, said while controlled pollinations don't improve the health of an individual tree, they could "help future generations of chestnuts produce nuts that might be viable and be able to grow."

Found by loggers hired by the Schachts, the bagged tree had been impacted by blight but survived long enough to flower — an uncommon feat ever since Asian chestnuts introduced a fungal disease, first discovered in the Bronx Zoo in 1904, which decimated billions of American chestnuts over the first half of the 20th century.

The American chestnut is famed for once being the "cradle-to-grave tree," Swatt said. With sturdy, naturally rot-resistant wood, the trees once stood 100 feet tall throughout eastern U.S. forests and were commonly used for telephone poles, railroad ties, furniture, barns that still stand today and coffins.

But the tree is now considered "functionally extinct," Swatt said, because it's not producing enough viable seeds to sustain a population.

"Sprouts grow in the understory of the forest. Any disturbance in the forest, natural or unnatural, they get light and grow quickly and tall enough to flower. Those are the trees we're interested in," Swatt said. "But with the blight still out there, eventually the blight kills the bark, girdles the tree and the stem dies down. It doesn't kill the roots — they sprout, blight gets them, and they're in a cycle of sprouting and dying."

"Chestnuts have continued to survive as a shrub," Rob Schacht said. "I think there's a chance that there's more chestnuts in woods where people don't go. But it's a real thing for them to get the caliper, or diameter, to reach flowering maturity. It's usually two or three branches sticking out of an old stump."

Plans to pollinate the bagged tree — confirmed as a pure American chestnut by Kendra Collins, New England Regional Science Coordinator for The American Chestnut Foundation — hit a snag Monday morning.

Distinctive Tree Care's bucket truck — which endured minor damage during the first trek to the property earlier this month — succumbed to New England rocks and stumps despite the valiant efforts of workers Bryan Dumond and David Covell, getting stuck and flattening a tire on the large slope below the patch of land where the chestnut stands.

But Swatt said the tree has a good chance of survival and crews could return next season. Another silver lining was that he was able to clip a leaf from a second chestnut tree found on the property, which he will send to Collins for confirmation of its purity. He said it's unlikely anyone planted an Asian-American chestnut hybrid in the middle of such a field, and he's hopeful for future controlled pollinations at the site.

Once pollinated, teams pull the chestnut burrs before squirrels get to them, Swatt said, and "cold stratify" the nuts, packaging them in damp peat moss and refrigerating them through winter before planting them in pots when they sprout in the spring.

They eventually wind up in what's known as germplasm conservation orchards, some on state forestland and others on private property, Swatt said. The orchards preserve the genetic background of the trees, which can then be used for future breeding to help make the American chestnut more blight resistant.

The foundation is also "backcrossing" chestnuts, crossing Chinese and American parent trees and attempting to weed out unwanted characteristics of the Asian trees other than disease resistance. Swatt said researchers at the State University of New York's Environmental Science and Forestry School in Syracuse are producing genetically modified chestnuts with a disease-resistant wheat gene.

"We're also collecting twigs and sprouts from chestnuts that get no light in the woods and grafting them onto other chestnut trees we have growing in pots, then plant them in the orchards where they get light and can grow tall enough to flower," Swatt said.

b.kail@theday.com

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