ANNAPOLIS – Jim Hill’s 87-foot chestnut tree may be the unsung hero in the battle against chestnut blight — or the attempt to grow a nearly pure American blight-resistant chestnut tree.
Miraculously, of the 200 chestnuts on Hill’s Mt. Airy property, one tree, only 12 inches in diameter, has lasted 65 years without getting the blight that wiped out a species that used to grow in the billions up and down the East Coast.
Hill’s tree is one of just a handful of trees nationwide that has resisted the blight.
The pollen from his tree has been the root for the breeding project Sam Castleman runs in Thurmont with the American Chestnut Foundation. Castleman crossbreeds Chinese and American chestnuts in the hope he will eventually get a blight-resistant, pure-American tree out of the 375 he has at different ages and percentages of the two species.
It will be about eight to 10 years before they will have a resistant tree, said Castleman, who works with the American Chestnut Foundation to develop a regionally adaptable strand of the tree.
The first step in the breeding process is to cross a Chinese tree with an American tree. Then that cross is bred with another American tree, and so forth for a few generations, until a 15/16 pure American chestnut tree is created that has the blight-resistant characteristic of the Chinese chestnut.
Before the blight struck in about 1900, imported on Asian nursery stock, the American chestnut grew in about a 200 million-acre area. The tree grew in significantly high numbers in Maryland and it is estimated that it represented one in every four hardwoods.
“The American chestnut was the redwood of the East,” Castleman said.
Hill thinks preserving these trees is part of preserving an East Coast culture.
“When the chestnuts died out a whole culture died out,” he said. “Back in the old days, all these people went into the Appalachian Mountains to get furs and when that ran out all they had was moonshine and chestnut trees.”
“At the present, it’s only part of a song but in the past it was really the mainstay of rural Appalachia,” said Ana Ronderos, communications director for the American Chestnut Foundation.
Ronderos was speaking of “The Christmas Song,” which begins with the lyric, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .”
The American chestnut has more commercial value because it is larger and is highly rot resistant compared with the Chinese chestnut, as well as with other hardwoods.
“The American tree really looks a lot different,” said Doug Boucher, an ecologist at Hood College. The American tree tends to dominate the forest canopy while the Chinese tree tends to be smaller, he said.
The tree is known for making strong boards and providing food for animals and people.
“A lot of people depended on the chestnut,” Ronderos said. “It was considered a cradle-to-grave tree,” meaning it was used to make cradles and coffins.
Although it still may be a few generations before the tree is once again common in the Appalachian Mountains, Boucher thinks they are more than halfway to getting a blight-resistant pure American tree.
Seeing a pure American grown would be a significant accomplishment, Boucher said, since it was humans who brought about its demise through importation.
“Beyond the practical value, I think there is a real use to restoring the ecosystem the way it was,” Boucher said.
“It’s quite an important piece in the past,” Ronderos said. “It’s part of our heritage that we can’t appreciate now.”