April 17, 2002 | By: Haven Miller
ROBINSON FOREST, KY

Seventy years ago Kentucky's forests were downright crowded with chestnut trees. Wildlife such as turkey, bear and deer depended on the chestnut's mast crop for food. Humans valued the tree for both food and wood.

Then, almost overnight, the trees fell victim to chestnut blight and died out. Seventy-seven year old Junior Marshall of Breathitt County remembers how the event affected the lives of eastern Kentuckians.

"Losing the chestnut was a big blow," Marshall said. "People would use it for buildings and fences and firewood, and whatever they needed. It didn't decay quick, it lasted. And people roasted chestnuts and also ate them raw. They were sweet flavored and tender, and they'd grow as big as a hen egg."

Now researchers are working to help re-establish the chestnut in Kentucky.

"The chestnut blight arrived in Kentucky in the 1930s, before the study of forest ecology and silviculture had been developed, so there is little information to help us decide where or how the chestnut should be replanted," said Chuck Rhoades, forestry researcher for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "Our research plantings with pure American chestnuts allow us to go back in time and evaluate site requirements and forest stand conditions that favor establishment of chestnut. We will then apply this information to the blight-resistant hybrid trees as they become available."

Rhoades and a team of forestry professionals with the U.S. Forest Service, the Kentucky Division of Forestry, Berea College Forest, and the American Chestnut Foundation are planting chestnut seedlings at UK's Robinson Forest and other selected sites around the state.

"We're looking at the establishment of chestnut under a variety of topographic and forest canopy conditions, and we are looking at how it grows relative to other hardwood species on a variety of sites," said Rhoades. "We're especially concerned with how chestnut will compete with yellow poplar and other fast-growing species."

UK forestry students are helping clear sites and plant trees. Funding is provided by the Wild Turkey Federation, the American Chestnut Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service.

"Chestnut researchers expect that blight-resistant hybrid seedlings will be available within the next decade," said Rhoades.

The hybrids combine the blight-resistant traits of Chinese chestnut with the desirable nut, tree form, and growth rate of the original American chestnut. The breeding program follows a simple plant breeding technique that introduces Chinese chestnut pollen to American chestnut flowers.

Seedlings from this initial pairing are tested for blight resistance once they reach five to six years of age. These blight resistant hybrids are then backcrossed against different American chestnuts. The process is repeated and the final generation of backcrossed hybrids is then intercrossed. No gene splicing or gene insertion occurs in this traditional plant breeding approach.

"The final product is a blight resistant chestnut that contains 15/16ths of its genetic characteristics from American chestnut parents," said Rhoades.

According to Rhoades the research is groundwork for what will be the eventual introduction of a blight-resistant chestnut variety into Kentucky's forests. The project is well received by local residents.

"A lot of people are excited about the work we are doing here and would like to see chestnut back in the woods," he said.

Junior Marshall is one of those who'd like to see the tree's return.

"What I remember better than anything was in the fall of ‘30 and reaching up into the fall of ‘31 you'd look up at the hillside and look at the cover and you didn't see anything but yellow or gold, the chestnuts were that thick," Marshall said. "And they all turned the same color. Half the forest was chestnut-colored gold in the fall."

Contact: 

Chuck Rhoades, 859-257-6359