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Volunteers plant wild American chestnuts to create blight-resistant variant

Maine Coast Heritage Trust staff and volunteers work alongside members of the Maine chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation to plant 10 young American chestnut trees at Cousins River Fields & Marsh Preserve in Yarmouth.
Dainelle Arroyo
/
Courtesy of Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Maine Coast Heritage Trust staff and volunteers work alongside members of the Maine chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation to plant 10 young American chestnut trees at Cousins River Fields & Marsh Preserve in Yarmouth.

A dozen volunteers planted 10 wild American chestnut seedlings at a Yarmouth nature preserve in the hopes of helping restore the devastated American chestnut tree.

The volunteer group organized by the Maine chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation planted the seedlings at the Cousins River Fields and Marsh Reserve cared after by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Chestnut trees in Maine grow sparsely as the state is on the northernmost edge of where the plant grows. Due to that low density, the blight did not devastate the trees as heavily. Eva Butler, vice president of Maine's chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, said Maine now has one of the highest populations of wild chestnuts in the nation.

"We [find and] collect those nuts in the fall and keep them in the winter in a refrigerator to cool them down," said Butler. "Then we just start potting them up in February. So, what we brought today for the [are] small seedlings from those nuts [collected] from last fall."

Once widespread throughout the US, the American chestnut's population was all but wiped out by chestnut blight — a deadly fungus endemic to Asia. The fungus was introduced to North America in the early 20th century. The tree is considered functionally extinct where the plant rarely reaches maturity before dying, rendering its population no longer viable.

Scientists and researchers have tried to genetically engineer and selectively breed an American chestnut variant that’s blight resistant. Kat O’Connor, a steward with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said the seedlings are being planted at the preserve in the hopes that a blight resistant variant will one day be created.

"If they do get the hybrid tree that is resistant, or if they do get the GMO tree that is resistant these trees," said O'Connor, "their seeds [are] what will be bred with those [resistant plants] to create another generation of resistance. So, if there’s ever a tree that’s resistant, then we’re gonna have seeds— we’re gonna have a seed source."

Nick Song is Maine Public's inaugural Emerging Voices Fellowship Reporter.


Originally from Southern California, Nick got his start in radio when he served as the programming director for his high school's radio station. He graduated with a degree in Journalism and History from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University -- where he was Co-News Director for WNUR 89.3 FM, the campus station.