Unity College continues chestnut tree renewal

Partnership yields 650 new seedlings of species with historic, commercial value

UNITY, Maine — Unity College faculty and students continued their multi-year partnership with multiple conservation groups by planting 650 American chestnut seedlings around central Maine in June.

The American chestnut is classified as a tree of special concern in Maine because of the devastating effects of a blight accidentally imported to the East Coast more than 100 years ago. Unity College forged a partnership with The American Chestnut Foundation and the New England Forestry Foundation in the Spring of 2015 to begin a large-scale experiment as part of the restoration of the important species.

On a hot, humid day in June, volunteers planted 650 pure American chestnut (Castanea dentata), Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), and hybrid seedlings. Each seedling was then individually protected with shelters and surrounded by more than 1,000 feet of solar-charged electric fence to protect the tender sprouts from browsing deer.

Unity College students studying Conservation Biology and staff from McKay Farm & Research Station — a Unity College facility that provides hands-on learning in sustainable entrepreneurial agriculture — sowed and grew the seedlings in the greenhouses at McKay. The New England Forestry Foundation provided the planting location at their Thurston Memorial Forest in Knox and Montville. The June 16 replanting occurred with help from volunteers with the Maine Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation.

Dr. Matthew Chatfield, Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology, said the study will begin to yield information about cold hardiness and disease resistance of the American chestnut as they are replanted into their native range, perhaps as early as this Fall.

The replanted areas “will serve as an outdoor field laboratory for students from nearby Unity College to conduct field measurements and test hypotheses over the years,” he said. “The plan is to teach Unity students about reintroduction and restoration, showing them that what they learn in the classroom can be applied in the real world,” Chatfield said.

“This is a world-class study,” said Dr. Brian E. Roth, Associate Director of the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit at the University of Maine School of Forest Resources. “With the quality of the seedlings, combined with some much needed rainfall, good weed control, and protection from browsing animals, I expect the survival to be excellent.”

The effort comes a year after America’s Environmental College held a ceremonial tree planting of a potentially blight resistant chestnut tree on campus, on Earth Day 2015. It is envisioned that more chestnut trees will be planted on campus in the future.

“This is Unity College education in action,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, “where highly qualified faculty partner with organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation to bring meaningful, field-based research to undergraduate students. The result is not just the teaching and learning of conservation knowledge and ethics, but also the restoration of a historic and biologically significant American tree species.”

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 chestnut blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was accidentally introduced into America at the beginning of 20th century, and the American chestnut became functionally extinct. The fungus attacks wounds in the bark of a tree, forms cankers, and eventually girdles the tree, killing all but the root system.

The American chestnut can grow more than 100 feet tall with a diameter of as much as 14 feet. They have canoe-shaped leaves with small hooks along the edges, and they 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.

Since 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation has been working to restore this iconic species for many reasons, including:
●      American chestnuts produce a sweet, highly nutritious, gluten-free food;
●      American chestnuts are an important and reliable source of food for deer, bears, turkeys, birds, and squirrels;
●      American chestnuts are late flowering and produce abundant nut crops because they avoid late frosts;
●      American chestnut wood is highly rot-resistant wood with a straight grain that resembles oak but weighs far less;
●      For a hardwood species, the trees grow rapidly in the right conditions;
●      American chestnuts have proven valuable in reclamation of areas devastated by coal strip mining.

“It was called the cradle-to-grave wood,” Glen Rea, the northern breeding coordinator for the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, told the Bangor Daily News. “Cradles, tables, beds, caskets, all were made of chestnut.”

Last summer, University of Maine researchers found the tallest American chestnut in North America in a forest owned by the University of Maine Foundation in Lovell, near the New Hampshire border. The discovery of the 115-foot tall tree was “thrilling to the people who are trying to bring back the species,” Rea said.

The American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit group based in North Carolina, wants to breed blight resistance from the Chinese chestnut tree into the American chestnut, while keeping the American tree’s characteristics.

In Maine, volunteers joined forces with the national group in 1999 and have planted 27,000 blight-resistant hybrid chestnut trees in seed orchards around the state. In the next few years, they plan to plant 27,000 more trees, Rea told the Bangor Daily News. The seed orchards will be located in Searsport, Stetson, Phippsburg, Winthrop, Lovell, Unity, and Morrill, Rea said.

“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,” Chatfield said.

The American Chestnut Foundation is a nonprofit conservation organization working to restore the American chestnut species to its native range, the eastern woodlands of the U.S. For more information about TACF, call Ruth Goodridge at (828) 281-0047; email ruth.goodridge@acf.org; or go online www.acf.org or www.facebook.com/americanchestnut.

For photos of the June 16 event, click here.

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