Vanishing American chestnut trees to be renewed at Unity during Earth Week

Planting on campus April 24 offers lesson in restorative conservation

UNITY, Maine – America’s environmental college is planning events for Earth Day that include a planting ceremony to reintroduce the American chestnut tree on campus.

The planting ceremony will take place at 1 p.m. Friday, April 24, near the Unity Rocks triangle. Unity students, officials and members of the American Chestnut Foundation will attend.

Unity College also will stage an Earth Day Fair, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. The grassy area next to Unity Rocks will host the event, with tables for various on-campus organizations such as Student Activities, Wellness Committee, Residence Life, the Outdoor Adventure Center and a number of student-run clubs.

In the year 1900, there were more than 4 billion American chestnut trees in the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Alabama – approximately one of every four trees in the Appalachians.

The American chestnut – Castanea dentata – can grow to as high as 100 feet tall with a diameter of as much as 14 feet. They have canoe-shaped leaves with small hooks along the edges, and bloom in July, producing so many white catkins that a tree might look like it is covered with snow.

In the fall, they produce very prickly round burrs, each of which contains three edible chestnut-colored seeds. European and Asian chestnut trees produce larger nuts that lack the sweetness of the American variety.

Shortly after 1900, a fungus known as chestnut blight – Cryphonectria parasitica – was accidentally introduced to America and killed most American chestnuts, which had no resistance to the fungus. The fungus attacks wounds in the bark of a tree, forms cankers, and eventually girdles the tree so the tree starves to death.

According to The American Chestnut Foundation, which has been working to restore American chestnut trees since 1983, the American chestnut can be called “the perfect tree” for its multiple uses:

  • Chestnuts are sweet, highly nutritious, gluten-free food.
  • American chestnuts are a source of food for deer, bears, turkeys, birds, and squirrels. Unlike other nut trees, they produce abundantly every year.
  • Chestnut wood has a straight grain and is highly rot-resistant. It resembles oak but weighs far less. It was used for split-rail fences because it split so well, and its rot resistance made it desirable for barns, flooring, utility poles, and railroad ties.
  • They grow rapidly in the right growing conditions, the tree can quickly store large amounts of carbon, helping mitigate the effects of global warming. They are also proving valuable in reclamation of areas devastated by coal strip mining.

“We’re proud to be able to take part in the renewal of a beautiful tree indigenous to New England, right here on our campus in Unity, for Earth Day,” said Matthew Chatfield, Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology in the Center for Biodiversity at Unity College.

For more information about American chestnut trees, contact The American Chestnut Foundation, e-mail Mainetacf@gmail.com, or call 945-6945.

Other Earth Day events at Unity College during the week include:

  • Monday, April 20: group bike ride, 1 p.m.
  • Tuesday, April 21: do-it-yourself eco-terrariums, 7:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, April 21: bonfire, 9 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 22 (Earth Day): Clean Up Unity with the Unity Barn Raisers
  • Wednesday, April 22: Wildlife ID Bowl, 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, April 23: comedian Travis Curran.

For more information about any of these events, visit the Unity College Earth Week page on Facebook.

About Unity College

Unity College proudly celebrates its 50th year in 2015. The first institution of higher education in the nation to divest from fossil fuel investments, Unity is committed to educating the next generation of environmental professionals. Sustainability science lies at the heart of its educational mission, with 16 environmentally focused undergraduate majors. For more information, visit unity.edu.

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