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Volunteers plant 4,000 chestnut seeds to restore blighted trees

Every American chestnut tree from Alabama to Maine will eventually succumb to blight.

“It’s just a matter of when,” said Larry Grossman, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.

But after decades of work to improve the trees’ resistance to a deadly fungus, Grossman’s group is getting closer to reversing that outcome in Maryland.

Armed with shovels and gardening gloves, about 30 volunteers with the American Chestnut Foundation planted 4,000 chestnut seeds Saturday in the warmth of a greenhouse at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville. The foundation will study the saplings that sprout to pinpoint trees that are the most genetically resistant to the fungus. They ultimately hope their research will help restore wild chestnut trees in Maryland and beyond.

The Maryland group’s work is part of a broader East Coast effort to revitalize the American chestnut, a species decimated by Cryphonectria parasitica — an orange-yellow fungus that attacks the trees’ trunks — during the last century.

Saturday marked first time the volunteers had gathered to seed thousands of trees in a greenhouse instead of planting seeds directly in the foundation’s 22 chestnut tree orchards across the state.

The future trees planted Saturday were the fifth generation of seeds in a decades-long effort to breed chestnut trees that are blight-resistant — a cross between American chestnut trees and their shorter broader cousins, Chinese chestnuts, which are naturally immune to the fungus.

The sixth generation of seeds — which will fall from trees planted in Saturday’s crop — will be 94 percent pure American chestnuts.

“We don’t know exactly how far away we are from getting seeds that are completely immune,” foundation member Karl Mech said. “But we think we’re close.”

American chestnuts grow quickly, have straight grain and reach up to 100 feet. Their rot-resistant wood was once commonly used for fence posts, railroad ties, building beams and furniture.

Peggy MacDonald, a volunteer with the American Chestnut Foundation and the Maryland chapter’s former president, said the tree was important to her family in Eastern Kentucky, where her father and grandfather watched its decline. She joined the Maryland chapter about four years ago.

“We really want to see this tree come back because it was such an important tree,” MacDonald said. “The tree was incredibly important to my family. My grandfather was a woodworker and farmer, and he used chestnut for everything.”

MacDonald was among the volunteers wetting potting soil, packing the mix into 4,000 plastic pots and seeding them with one chestnut each — planted on their side to allow their taproot to grow down and their stem to stretch upward.

When the saplings are a few months old in May or June, the trees will be scored and infected with the fungus. The foundation will monitor their reactions to determine which trees have a stronger resistance to the blight.

Of the 4,000 seeds planted Saturday, Grossman said, only about 20 percent will be planted in the foundation’s orchards. A small fraction of those trees will be selected to continue breeding based on how blight-resistant they are and whether they showcase strong American chestnut features — namely, their height.

“In the end, if we get 12 to 24 we’ll be very happy,” Grossman said.

Six to 10 years from now the seeds planted Saturday will mature into trees producing seeds the group hopes can one day be used for forest restoration.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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