By Ruth Seward, Director of the Worcester Tree Initiative
The American Chestnut tree was a dominant tree species in the forests of eastern America. People depended on this fast-growing tree for its wood which is light-weight, easy to work with, and rot resistant, making it ideal for any projects, including building homes and barns, fences, furniture and even musical instruments. The nut was also a central part of American life as a feed for livestock and a crucial food source for wildlife. The chestnut was also a reliable source of nutrition for families throughout the United States, and it was common for people to forage the nuts and utilize them in daily recipes or sell them for extra income.
However, in the early 1900’s a fungal blight accidentally introduced from Asia began to kill the American Chestnut. The trees in our North American Forests had no resistance to this newly introduced organism. Working its way through the forests this fungal disease killed every Chestnut tree in its way. By 1950 virtually all of the American Chestnut Trees had vanished from the American landscape with the exception of a few scattered trees located mostly in Virginia.
This tragic loss spurred some early, unsuccessful efforts to find resistant varieties of American Chestnuts and to breed them. However, no hope was found among the surviving trees. In 1985 The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) was created as a way to organize the reintroduction of a blight resistant chestnut tree. By cross-breeding the Chinese Chestnut Tree and the American Chestnut Tree TACF has successfully developed hybrid species which are resistant to the blight.
By continuing to breed these resistant varieties with true American Chestnuts TACF now has a hybrid which is genetically 93% American Chestnut. And the nut of these trees looks and tastes like the original! By planting these saplings in the native habitat of historic American Chestnut trees eventually a new forest will emerge and the important lumber and food crop will be restored.
On Friday, May 1, 2015, the Worcester Tree Initiative, in partnership with the City of Worcester, Green Hill Park Coalition, Worcester Technical High School, the Worcester Garden Club, and the American Chestnut Foundation celebrated Arbor Day by planting 15 American Chestnut Trees in Green Hill Park on Skyline Drive.
This is an incredible milestone in bringing back this iconic American tree! Worcester is honored to be the recipient of such a generous gift. In particular this gift is significant in the face of the loss of city trees to the Asian Longhorned Beetle in the wooded areas adjacent to Green Hill park. These trees are symbols of the resilience of trees and forests. The trees, which grow very quickly, will soon be casting shade and producing their spiny, shelled fruits.
We look forward to watching them thrive in Green Hill park and eventually finding saplings sprouting in the forest!