Howard County facility seeks volunteers to help chestnut trees come back

For The Baltimore Sun

Dave Gill recalls hearing his mother reminisce about gathering fallen chestnuts in woods near her childhood home for use in stuffing at Thanksgiving.

That was in the 1920s, when the American chestnut tree was a common denizen of forests from Maine to Mississippi.

Over the last century, the stately tree — which once represented a quarter of eastern North America's hardwood forests — has all but disappeared, the victim of a deadly blight.

Residents will have an opportunity on Saturday, April 1, to help the American Chestnut Foundation in its efforts to bring the iconic species back.

As an orchard steward with the Maryland chapter of the foundation, Gill is seeking 30 volunteers to plant 1,500 chestnut seeds at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center-Clarksville Facility, located off Folly Quarter Road.

The site is owned and operated by the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which is based in College Park.

"Planting the seeds is a time-consuming process and there's a limited window for planting each spring," said Gill, a retired accountant who lives in Damascus. "If 30 people show up, it will take us about three hours."

Only one seedling from each of the 10 150-plant plots that will be planted is expected to eventually meet stringent evaluation criteria for further research.

Seedlings that make the grade will be further winnowed in a multi-year process that will eventually result in a 94 percent-pure hybrid of the American chestnut and the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to the blight, Gill said.

"By the time we've bred down to one-sixteenth part Chinese chestnut, we will have the best of the best — an almost pure American chestnut species that shows resistance to blight," he said.

American chestnut trees were long prized for their timber and as a food source for wildlife, and were often the tree of choice for homeowners who liked their appearance and the shade provided by their spreading limbs and big leaf canopy, he said.

"American chestnut trees were called 'the redwoods of the East' because they were rot-resistant, straight trees that grew to be 100 feet tall," he said.

But starting in 1904, 4 billion American chestnut trees died off after a fungus was imported to New York on plant material from Asia.

"By 1950, the blight had eliminated the American chestnut as a mature forest tree," a species that had "survived all adversaries for 40 million years only to be destroyed in 40," the foundation website states.

Gill became interested in the tree's plight when he retired in 2010 and headed to Georgia to hike the Appalachian Trail. There he saw "lots of large tree stumps with shoots sprouting out of them."

After learning the stumps were all that was left of infected American chestnut trees, he soon joined the state's sole chapter, which is among the 16 states that have chapters in the North Carolina-based foundation.

Last March, 1,350 seeds were planted in nine plots in the Clarksville orchard. Plantings are also planned for 2018 and 2019, when the dedicated two-acre site will be full.

Mike Dwyer, Clarksville facility manager, said the partnership between the center and the American Chestnut Foundation has been fruitful.

"The goal of retaining the American chestnut by breeding in resistance to the blight is a worthwhile cause," he said. "Over the past couple years, we've watched the project go from idea to reality."

The only other seed orchard in Maryland is on land owned by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission near Triadelphia Reservoir in Montgomery County, where a similar planting effort has been going on since 2013.

Saving any living species is always worth the effort, Gill said.

"The biodiversity of our forests is an important aspect to consider," he said. "Putting one more tree out there improves our forests' chances of surviving the next environmental challenge."

Volunteers for the April 1 project should be age 8 or older. Bring a garden trowel, work gloves and a bucket. For more information on volunteering to plant for the seed-planting session, which will start at 9:30 a.m., contact Gill at orchardsteward@gmail.com or 301-540-6671.

The Howard County Conservancy also has a program planned to discuss "The Return of the Mighty Chestnut," scheduled for Saturday, April 8, from 10 a.m. to noon. Gary Carver, also of the American Chestnut Foundation, will present slides, hands-on examination of leaves, nuts, burrs, sections of stems with blight cankers, and blocks of chestnut wood. A limited number of wood samples and live chestnut seedlings will be available free to participants. Held at Mount Pleasant, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock, Information: 410-465-8877 or hcconservancy.org.

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