American Chestnuts

American Chestnuts: A Wildlife Conservation Project Could Spell Chestnuts Roasting o’er the Open Fire in Future

by John Ford

To plant or not to plant: that is the question! 

Recently, members of the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Wildlife Committee became aware of a project by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association to attempt to restore the American Chestnut tree species into Southern Ontario.

By way of background, this species once commonly graced roadsides and fence lines. For those of us too young to remember, we might be reminded of what happened to White Elms in the 1950s. These trees look nothing like what we know as Horse Chestnuts. In fact, they produced a wood with a wide grain suitable for fine furniture making. Other uses made of this straight grained amber colored wood included split rail fences, railroad ties and shingles. Many pioneers believed that the bark and leaves contained medicinal properties. Unfortunately in the early1900s a plight imported on Chinese Chestnut stock arrived in North America. The first incidence of blight was discovered on an American Chestnut located near the Bronx Zoo in New York. Within a relatively short time, this magnificent forest species disappeared both from the United States and Canada. By the 1950s the chestnut was eliminated as a forest tree with approximately 9 million acres blighted in the U S. Many Ontarians, of the baby boomer era, are too young to have ever seen Chestnuts. It should be stated that the chestnuts produced on these trees are eatable. Interestingly, there are some examples of blight resistant Chestnuts in Ontario. Most of these exist in the Grand River Valley and the largest known example is near Burford in Brant County. Experts believe that it is essential to conserve the gene pool in order to attempt to restore Chestnuts.

What is the action plan? The first approach is to identify and manage current stands as well as to establish new planting from trees that have not been infected. The new plantings use 100% pure genetic stock. Successes have been recorded both within and outside the original range of American Chestnuts. A second strategy is called “Hypervirulence” and this is being attempted at the University of Guelph. Basically, a biological control method which uses a virus naturally occurring in some strains of the fungus blight is trying to slow down the chestnut blight. It is hoped that this hyervirulence would allow the infected tree to ward off the infection with protective calluses.

Bruce Graham, the nursery manager of the Grand River Conservation Authority, is a prime mover in the restoration project. This nursery propagates 100’s of seeds yearly. Now there are 7 trees with a girth exceeding 72 inches. Before the blight, it is estimated that there were over 2 million trees of that size in Ontario.

You might, by now, be wondering how this fits with the S S A Wildlife Committee. When we contacted the Soils and Crops to apply for a project, we discovered that all the sites had been picked and in fact, the plantings were complete. We spoke with Bruce Graham several times to determine if we had an appropriate location. We were also concerned that our site in Derby Township, Grey County was north of the historic range maps. Bruce reassured us that some of the plantings had been done in areas north of us and that areas considered blight free probably applied to Grey County. The Wildlife Committee decided to do a planting on Sydenham Conservation Foundation property in Derby Township on a plot purchased from Robt. Walker. Blake Smith, Wildlife Committee Chair, developed a plan to create a nut orchard. We planted American Chestnut seedlings as well as Burr Oak, Red Oak and Shagbark Hickory. Delicate chestnuts and hickories will be protected by Tubex, brush blankets and mulching. We plan to add Bitternut Hickory and White Oak when available. Certainly, this is an experiment. We know that historically the chestnuts and hickories are somewhat north of where they commonly are found. However, we also know that nut species spread extremely slowly and that some groves exist in northern areas. Some attribute these groves to planting by native peoples.

Maybe someday, Derby Township will boast of its nut grove visited by the usual mammals, White Tailed Deer, Wild Turkeys and man. I only hope that you and I are still around to see it!

For more information: contact
Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association at 1-800-265-9751 or email oscia@netcom.ca

or

Grand River Conservation Authority at 519-621-2761 est 270 or email conservationaction@grandriver.on.ca

Resources Used for this article: Once the Hardest Working Tree in the Forest-Now It Needs Your Help and Recovery or the American Chestnut