What do you get when you cross an American chestnut tree and a Chinese chestnut tree? A blight-resistant tree—at least that’s what Center for Technology Essex forestry teacher Brian Japp and the American Chestnut Foundation hope.
Students in CTE’s “Natural Resources, Forestry and Horticulture” course have collaborated with the Vermont/New Hampshire chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation to restore American chestnut trees in areas where they once thrived and provided both economic and biological benefits, Japp said.
About two years ago, the American Chestnut foundation’s Vermont/New Hampshire chapter president Yuri Bihun approached CTE and proposed a partnership in which students would help grow and care for an American chestnut seed orchard, Japp said.
The state offered a site on West Street, which was once a state-run tree nursery, Bihun said. The work requires 30 to 40 years, and the state was willing to allot the land for that time, he added.
In the first year, Japp and his students raised hybrid American and Chinese chestnut trees from nut to sapling in their greenhouse before moving them to the West Street orchard.
“They brought in a bunch of nuts that we shucked and planted and grew into chestnut trees,” he recalled.
Now two years into the partnership, Japp said the collaboration trains his 11 CTE juniors and seniors in orchard management. Those enrolled in his course learn about seed anatomy, tractor safety, rototilling, soil preparation and predation prevention, among other skills.
In about five years the West Street trees will be ready to be subjected to blight, and the survivors will become seed trees for the next 20 to 30 years.
“My hope for the trees … is that they will produce viable stock and contribute to the progress being made for the restoration of the chestnut tree,” Japp said.
At one point, the American chestnut comprised one in five trees along the Appalachian Trail, according to Bihun. In the early 1900s, a fungus called cryphonectria parasitica caused blight in the trees, nearly eradicating them, the foundation’s website says. Today, American chestnuts are what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed functionally extinct.
“Functionally extinct means chestnuts sprout. There’s millions of chestnut sprouts, but there’s no more chestnut trees or forests,” Bihun said. “They only reproduce vegetatively, and then they die.”
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 and began efforts to backcross a more resilient American chestnut using the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut and cross pollinating it with its American cousin.
The foundation has backcross-bred the species four times to date, halving the proportion of Chinese chestnut genomes each time, while retaining blight resistance in the increasingly pure-strand American chestnut tree. Growers inoculate the trees with blight, using the surviving trees as parent stock, pollinating them with American chestnut and repeating the process, Japp said.
Somewhere between 600 and 700 Chestnut trees grow on the West Street property. But most of them will die when subjected to blight, Japp said.
The CTE teacher hopes to expand the seed orchard in future years, and one day, use the surviving trees as parent stock to restore American chestnut trees in the Champlain Valley and Southern Vermont where they once flourished.
“It feels really good to be able to have all of these plants, or trees, out here that … are almost extinct,” CTE senior Chase Reynolds said. “We have a chance of possibly making a small population of them and possibly increasing that in the state of Vermont.”
Reynolds said he’s learned a lot about the work, time and care that go into raising mature trees. He has helped weed the orchard, conduct a mortality study and, on a Nov. 9 visit, prep the site for winter’s chill and frost.
Courtney Berscheid, a CTE junior, was busy last Friday feeding the trees a compost mixture produced at the school.
“It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it,” she said. “It’s something that will affect the world.”