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The story of the chestnut trees in WNC

Intro (25)

Photo by @moore.ns

Asheville + WNC are known for the biodiversity of their forests. 🌳 The hundreds of plant species found here add to the enjoyment of hiking, create beautiful colors in the fall, + give yet another reason to explore these mountains.

Flashback to a few decades ago, and trekking through somewhere like the Nantahala National Forest would have looked a lot different. The American chestnut tree used to tower in these woods but fell prey to a fungal pathogen that wiped out the whole species.

The American chestnut tree, once known as the “redwood of the East” because they often reached heights of 150 feet, are among the largest, tallest + fastest growing trees in the US. Chestnuts were viewed as important for both the forest ecosystem + for human use. The wood was strong + resistant to rot, making it ideal for a number of building projects such as furniture, flooring, railroad ties + fencing.

At the turn of the 20th century, a blight (Cryphonectria parasitica), attacked the American chestnut tree, effectively killing the species which had once dominated forests across the eastern United States. By the 1950s, the chestnut blight had killed billions of trees. Local companies + organizations like Biltmore + Navitat have partnered with the American Chestnut Foundation to provide test sites + foster growth of the chestnut trees in WNC. The hope is that by restoring the American chestnut, we can improve our forest ecosystem + restore biodiversity.

Today, if any chestnuts are found in Eastern forests, they don’t grow more than a few feet tall + rarely flower. Chestnut trees have reached a “genetic dead-end” in the U.S. because of their inability to reproduce. According to The American Chestnut Foundation “the American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then disappeared within 40.”

In hopes of bringing back the species, researchers have developed a back-cross hybrid with a Chinese blight-resistant chestnut and the native American chestnut. In 2009, 1,000 potentially blight-resistant chestnut trees were planted in the Nantahala National Forest, and two additional plantings took place in Tennessee + Virginia. Since then, more than 80 percent of the saplings across the three national forests have survived. As the trees grow + mature their blight resistance will be tested. With ongoing refinement + research, widespread restoration of the American chestnut may become a reality in the next hundred years.

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